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Novel approach to autism research wins support

A Binghamton University research project could lead to customized treatment strategies for children with autism spectrum disorders or ASD.

After a two-stage peer review, The Social Awareness Laboratory at the Institute for Child Development at Binghamton University has received funding through the Organization for Autism Research for the project “A Multi-Method Assessment and Treatment of the Social Skills Core Deficit in ASD.”

First year funding of $29,769 was will enable the investigators, Raymond G. Romanczyk, director of the Institute for Child Development, and Jennifer M. Gillis, currently at the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown Medical School, to directly extend their basic research program in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to direct clinical trials.

The primary deficit in ASD is poor social interaction. Previous research examining this deficit has relied on procedures and instrumentation that, because of their complexity and intrusiveness, required participants with minimal or no intellectual impairment and a high degree of cooperation—often adolescents or young adults. But these characteristics are not reflective of the majority of individuals with ASD, so past research has had significant limitations.

Over the last two years the Social Awareness Laboratory has developed non-invasive procedures and equipment that permits precise measurement of exactly where a child is looking, such as at faces, objects, and actions, either live or on video, measurement of an index of physiological anxiety, and the more standard measurement of affect, performance, and behavior.

These advances allowed the participation in clinical studies of very young children and children who have very significant intellectual impairment and significant behavior problems. That gives researchers the chance to work with the full range of children with ASD.

Because the Binghamton laboratory is the first to achieve simultaneous non-invasive measurement of these multiple variables within the full range of individuals with ASD, this grant was awarded to further its efforts. The grant will allow researchers to extend their basic research program, which examines the interaction of attention, motivation, and anxiety in social interaction, and to enhance application of that research in the treatment of social deficits through analysis of the specific variables that influence poor social interaction.

One aspect of this grant will be to develop a parent-administered assessment of the child’s social deficits. The assessment will be validated with the more comprehensive laboratory assessment process, and specific treatment strategies tailored to each child with severe social interaction deficits will be developed based upon the parental and comprehensive laboratory assessments. Significant improvement of treatment efficacy based upon rigorous examination of the complex interplay of physiological and psychological variables in social interactions will be the primary focus of the grant, which is expected to be funded into a second-year.

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