Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
autism-research

A spectrum of possibilities

Wheaton faculty, students and alumnae/i contribute to autism research

When Wheaton Professor of Psychology Grace Baron walks into a classroom at the Groden Center, in Providence, R.I., teachers and students greet her enthusiastically. An 8-year-old boy calls her his friend, and she replies in kind.

She has had a long and close relationship with the teachers and students here. Shortly after completing her Ph.D. at Boston College, she helped establish the center in 1976, along with June and Gerald Groden. They all were seeking to fill a void in effective services for people with autism and other developmental problems.

The center is considered to be one of New England’s most comprehensive providers of lifelong services to individuals on the autism spectrum. It also serves as a real-world classroom for Wheaton students. For the past 35 years, under the leadership of Professor Baron, Wheaton’s faculty, alumnae/i and students have worked with the center to unlock clues behind autism.

Autism affects an estimated 1.5 million people in the United States and is a disorder with no known cause or cure. A diagnosis of autism can be devastating, potentially robbing a child of a normal future. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every 110 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder by age 8, and for boys, that rate is about one in 70. Government statistics also suggest the autism rate is increasing 10 to 17 percent annually, although researchers are unsure why.

A pervasive developmental brain disorder, autism is characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and restricted or repetitive behaviors. Though people “on the spectrum” are likely to exhibit similar traits, they are highly individual. One autistic child may be nonverbal and have difficulty learning to read and write, while another is able to attend mainstream classes in school.

Each year, about a dozen Wheaton students serve as volunteers, interns, summer employees and research assistants at the Groden Center. “It’s a wonderful thing, in many ways, to bring students to this multi-faceted career called ‘autism,’” says Baron.

Matthew Goodwin '98

Matthew Goodwin '98 is working on high-tech solutions to the difficulties faced by people with autism

The center also hosts field trips and serves as a field placement site for Wheaton students. And several alumnae/i—including Matthew Goodwin ’98, Dana Hajj ’80, Amy Diller ’93 and Jacquelyn Croce ’06—are part of the center’s staff.

Goodwin is working to find high-tech solutions to the difficulties faced by people with autism. Hajj started working at the center as a treatment teacher and is now a respite supervisor and early interventionist. Diller was the administrative assistant in Wheaton’s psychology department for four years before joining the Groden Center as associate director of training. And Croce, an English major and elementary education minor, teaches 6- to 8-year-olds at the Groden Center.

“After graduate school, I thought I would stay with the center for one or two years. Thirty-five years later, I’m still here,” says Baron, who conducts intensive, eight-week intake evaluations with new students at the Groden Center. “There’s both a comfort and excitement always for me here. My connection to the center is essential to who I am as a teacher, clinician and researcher.”

For the past 30-plus years, Baron’s clinical work has emphasized the teaching of self-control and self-management to persons with autism. And she examines this work in Stress and Coping in Autism (Oxford University Press, 2006), which she co-edited along with the Grodens and Lewis Lipsitt of Brown University.

But more recently, this teacher-scholar has become interested in the role environment may play in the expression of autism. Along with Wheaton Associate Professor of Chemistry Jani Benoit, a researcher specializing in mercury, Baron has studied levels of mercury in hair samples from young adults with autism. The two hypothesize that individuals with autism may have less ability to eliminate this toxin and others from their systems. Baron suggests that our increasingly toxic environment—the irradiation of seeds, mothers’ dental amalgams, and coal-burning power plants—may provide answers to the mystery behind the increased prevalence of autism.

“I feel like I have a whole new career, expanding classic behavioral treatment into bio-behavioral understanding of autism,” says Baron.

Through Wheaton’s “Connections” curriculum, Baron also teams up with Professor of Biology Betsey Dyer to teach about the connection between genetics and autism. Wheaton’s size makes this type of collaboration possible, says Baron. “We know to call on each other and share exciting news.”

Rachel Schink '11

Rachel Schink '11 explores expressive arts with clients at the Groden Center.

Teaching is at the center of Baron’s professional life, she says, and over the years, she has supervised many student projects and collaborated with students and alums in her research.

Goodwin was one of those students. A psychology major and Wheaton Scholar, he completed his honors thesis under Baron. His thesis, “Whole Child Perspective: Understanding Individuals with Autism,” received the Wheaton Scholar Excellence Award for Outstanding Thesis, and Baron considers it one of the best undergraduate works she has supervised. “He has an ‘ethological eye,’” she says, “always observing with wonder, respect and patient precision the diversity of the human condition.”

Now director of clinical research at the Media Lab at MIT and associate director of research at the Groden Center, Goodwin says his time at Wheaton “primed” him for his career. He first became interested in autism research in Oxford, England, when he was completing a liberal arts certificate program following his graduation from high school. Working in a program with children on the spectrum, Goodwin “fell in love with the kids.”

When he realized that his young charges knew his schedule, and would look for him when he was not there, he had an epiphany. “How could these students anticipate my arrival and take such apparent pleasure in our interactions if they lacked theory of mind?” Goodwin pursued that question with Baron at Wheaton, and continued to work with autistic children at the Groden Center.

He followed in his mentor’s footsteps, researching stress and its relationship to autism. As a Wheaton senior and then a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island, Goodwin monitored heart rates in students at the Groden Center, as they responded during potentially stressful situations. In other research labs, only 20 percent of the students were able to comply with the testing, which required participants to wear a cumbersome harness with electrodes. “That meant our scientific findings were potentially biased, since they were based on a minority of cases that do not necessarily generalize to the majority of the population,” he says.

Goodwin’s pioneering use of a comfortable vest and wristband, along with a gentler introduction to the research environment, made it possible for nearly all students to participate; now researchers have a useful measure of a child’s arousal or distress.

Recently, Goodwin, along with fellow researchers at MIT, designed an even more  minimally invasive wristband that wirelessly measures heart rate and skin conductivity, two indicators of stress and arousal levels. The wristband is well tolerated by a broader range of test subjects, which means that Goodwin’s test results more accurately represent the autistic population.

During testing, Goodwin found that some students who appear outwardly calm may actually be experiencing serious stress internally. “Take a situation where an autistic child is sitting at his desk doing nothing. The teacher, in an effort to be helpful, approaches, touches the student on the back and presents him with a task. The student reacts by flipping over the desk and engaging in self-injurious behavior. What the teacher didn’t know is that the student’s heart rate was around 120 beats-per-minute when she made her demand. He was completely stressed out, and without access to his internal state there was no way to know.”

These outbursts are often the result of stress caused by new people or situations, says Goodwin. “[Autistic children] have this constant barrage of sensory information they can’t regulate. They can’t tell you, ‘I am having a hard time making eye contact right now because I can see the flicker rate in the fluorescent lights.’”

Goodwin eventually hopes to create a wearable pin that would change color in response to physiological measurements of stress, revealing whether a child is over- or understimulated, “much like a mood ring.” Such a device could help teachers and parents, and could also help autistic children learn to recognize and communicate their own emotions.

The majority of dollars spent on autism research focuses on the role genetics and environmental factors play in the disorder. It’s critically important research, says Goodwin, “but it doesn’t do a lick of good for anyone who is affected right now.” Technology holds the key to improving life in real time for individuals with autism, he says. “The partnership between a person with autism and a computer is more powerful than either one alone.”

Recently, Goodwin and Media Lab researchers Rosalind Picard and Rana el Kaliouby, along with computer scientists at Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon, Boston University, University of Southern California, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, received a joint $10 million, five-year National Science Foundation Expeditions award to develop novel technologies for measuring and analyzing behavior in individuals with autism.

The MIT group is already developing a tiny camera that clips onto a wearer’s clothes and analyzes the facial expressions of others, reporting the results back to the wearer via an earpiece. “Mind Reader,” as it is called, could be a valuable tool in helping people with autism recognize and communicate emotions.

Goodwin envisions a scenario that could take place in the not-so-distant future. “Say a high-functioning person with autism, who happens to be an incredibly brilliant systems analyst, goes for a job interview. He comes highly recommended, and all he needs to do is get through the interview. Everything is going perfectly until the interviewer mentions the Red Sox. Our guy’s obsessive focus just happens to be the Red Sox, and he starts rattling off facts and statistics about his favorite team. Just then, the tiny camera in the analyst’s glasses picks up the emotion of boredom on the interviewer’s face, sending a message to the analyst’s earpiece, telling him to change the subject.” The autistic individual does so and ends up getting the job, with the help of a socio-emotional prosthesis, says Goodwin.

Professor of Psychology Grace Baron

Professor of Psychology Grace Baron

Both Baron and Goodwin are quick to point out that autism is an incredibly complex disorder. “You could almost compare autism to cancer,” says Goodwin. “There are so many different ways the two conditions can originate and express themselves.” As they continue with their work, both researchers hope to continue to shed light on a condition about which so little is known. Though more children will be diagnosed this year with autism than with pediatric diabetes, AIDS or leukemia, unlike with these diseases, there is no blood test or scan that can detect it.

“The more we can enable these kids to communicate what they are experiencing, unobtrusively observe them in their natural environments, and contribute data to researchers, the more we learn about the disorder, and the better we can understand and support them,” says Goodwin.

“Our work with those ‘on the spectrum,’” adds Baron, “also gives us a glimpse into not only related disorders, such as ADHD and other learning differences, but also human resilience and individual possibilities.”

About Mary Howard

Mary Howard ’85 is a freelance writer and editor who lives in southeastern Connecticut.