When I arrived to set up the computer, I was met with a vast array of cheerful amusements in this young persons’ room—posters of favorite game and cartoon characters, a fast PC for gaming, and several stuffed animals. It was a cozy place to hang out, which is a good thing, as I learned that Alan* spent most of his days there—alone—now that he was no longer taking Community College classes. Variations on this theme recurred with each home visit I made to young adults on the autism spectrum participating in our video game attention training study. Many of these young people are passionate about video gaming and contribute to online discussions of new and classic games. Some write fan fiction. Others dabble in programming to make their own video games and still others create digital animations making use of the broad array of resources available for learning such things with just an internet connection. Yet at home they sit, with obvious talent and a desire to learn but no clear path to employment or further training. A few manage college classes either full time or part time, but the vast majority are stuck in a holding pattern, in need of support that doesn’t seem to exist.
Make no mistake, the Spectrum article does not paint a pretty picture for young adults across the spectrum. But just as any two individuals with ASD likely have very different needs for support as young adults, the solutions that are just right for each community are also unique. This is why we need to come together as members of the San Diego autism community to listen to each other’s needs and work together to turn the “cliff” into a much more gentle slope. To this end, on Wednesday evening, April 5th, there are two events that take a first step at nurturing those community connections. UC San Diego is hosting a screening of Bass Clef Bliss, which tells the story of how one young man with autism found community around a love for music.
Another ambitious, though unfortunately not local, program has recognized the value that exists around a University—lots of housing, a wide array of employment possibilities, public transportation and shopping options, and a community with lots of enthusiastic young people who can serve as residential advisors and companions in social activities. Funded by a generous donor at Rutgers University in central New Jersey, the plan is to provide housing and community engagement for young adults with ASD along with supported job placement. The Spectrum article also talks about another program just getting underway at Drexel University in Philadelphia. How can we leverage the resources of universities and colleges here in San Diego to better support young adults with ASD?
Recent autism tracking data tell us that 50,000 individuals will ASD will reach age 18 each year. For San Diego County, with approximately 3.2 million people, can expect to have about 500 individuals with ASD reaching age 18 each year. We all lose out when these individuals don’t find meaningful paths to employment and a supportive community. I hope you will find a way to connect with others in our community this Autism Awareness month and through your discussions create new ideas for supporting young adults with ASD.
*Our young research participant’s name isn’t really Alan, but the situation I describe is quite real.
--Leanne Chukoskie, Ph.D. Associate Director, Research for Autism and Development Lab, Assistant Research Scientist, Institute for Neural Computation, UC San Diego
Posted Mar 24 2017
Friendly Neighbors There, That's Where We Meet
I had no inclination that the trajectory of my life would have brought me where I am today. That must be true for most people. But when I started college as a doe-eyed, goody two shoes, straight-A student, academic decathlete, and marching band leader, I had no idea that I would have NO idea what I was doing when I took on a new job at the age of 30.
Autism. I didn’t have it, no one in my family had it, my child didn’t have it, and no friends or friends’ families had it. I didn’t study it in school, I was no school psychologist, and what minimal amount of child development I was exposed to was only about typically developing kids (Piaget, anyone?). What business did I have in convincing an autism research lab that I was useful to them in any way? I guess I was going to force my way in.
But, surprise! The autism community didn’t need to be forced, it welcomed me. It said “I know you’re new to this now, but that’s ok”. Each day I spent in the lab taught me new things about a word I heard often on the news or read on some angry internet post, but did not give my attention to. My new vocabulary included phrases like “on the spectrum”, “PDD”, “restricted and repetitive behavior”, “IEP”, and “services”. I got to know kids, parents, siblings, adults, researchers, activists, and organizers who all smiled at me warmly and trusted me. I learned how different each interaction could be. I learned how different each treatment or combination of interventions could be. My eyes and my heart were open. I discovered just how much connection I had with autism that I wasn’t even aware of.
The autism community didn’t need me, but I needed them. I needed them to show me that I could understand this disorder, that I could be useful, that I could make an impact. Every time I feel like my job is mundane, I remember that every copy I make, every participant I schedule, every dataset I analyze goes towards helping these wonderful, brilliant families. My name is Sarah Hacker
, I’m a research associate at RADLab, and the autism community is my community.
As researchers of a specific population, we really get to know our participants and their families. We feel obliged and privileged to be part of their community, to advocate for them, to impact their world as positively as we can. To see how you can make an impact, even in the smallest way, check out these opportunities.
On Saturday morning, March 25th, the National Foundation for Autism Research (NFAR) is having its annual Race for Autism at Balboa Park. As always, it's superhero themed!! Complete with a resource fair and plenty of family activities, it's an awesome way to get out and support autism research. If you're not inclined to run/walk or can't make it down, consider donating to NFAR through Team RADLab.
Team RADLab represented well at NFAR's Race for Autism. Complete with researchers, students, and families!
- In honor of Autism Awareness Month, a special screening of Bass Clef Bliss: Terrence's Path will show at UCSD. This inspirational story of an autistic man finding his way in life through music is a free event open to the public. Meet the filmmakers and enjoy this great community outreach event on Wednesday, April 5th at the Price Center Theater.
- Less of an event and more of a demonstration of community on a grander scale, keep a look out for something new coming to Sesame Street; a puppet named Julia who has autism. Read this article to find out more about a new friend and the story of a mother who was called to bring her to life. Cheers to PBS as well for celebrating Autism Awareness Month by introducing yet another character on the spectrum to the show Arthur.
As Autism Awareness Month begins in April, we are reminded that it is our differences that make us amazing. Here's to celebrating both the differences as well as all that we share in San Diego's autism community.
Posted Mar 2 2017
Say "Hello" to my Digital Friend!!
Interventions based on novel technologies are often useful for and appealing to children with autism (1). Our lab and others have been using video games for training and assessment. In addition to video games, robots have been developed that aim to support social interaction in individuals on the spectrum (2-4). Our colleagues at the University of California, Irvine Jeff Krichmar and Ting-Shou Chou developed a tactile robot CARBO (short for Caretaker Robot). CARBO has a smooth shell that is covered with trackballs (remember Blackberry phones?) that light up a different color depending on the direction they are moved.
CARBO was first brought to us to determine if children with ASD would have improved sensory and motor function through repeated sessions with CARBO. I, being a neuroscience student, was intrigued by the idea that a robot may be able to help with these behaviors. During the first round of sessions I had with CARBO, I found myself less worried about their sensory and motor behavior, but more about whether or not they were having fun. And they were! Through comparisons of participants’ behavior during the CARBO session and previously recorded structured interview sessions involving toys, we observed that CARBO interactions seemed to enhance social engagement. This lead us to change our course of action from recording change in sensory and motor behavior over repeated sessions with CARBO to change in social engagement over repeated sessions with CARBO.
We are now testing a comparison between playing with CARBO and playing an interactive game. This change got me even more excited about the project, because now I get to meet new people and relate with them because I’m really a child trapped in young man’s body. After each interaction, I code the resulting video marking instances of social interaction, speech and repetitive behaviors when they occur. This coding allows us to quantify and compare behaviors in each phase of the interaction. In May, CARBO will make his San Francisco debut to participate in the IMFAR Innovative Technologies Demonstration. We look forward to sharing CARBO and our results as well as getting feedback from the broader autism community.
- Goldsmith, T. R., & LeBlanc, L. A. (2004). Use of technology in interventions for children with autism. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention, 1(2), 166.
- Kozima, Hideki, Cocoro Nakagawa, and Yuriko Yasuda. "Children–robot interaction: a pilot study in autism therapy." Progress in Brain Research 164 (2007): 385-400.
- Ricks, D. J., & Colton, M. B. (2010, May). Trends and considerations in robot-assisted autism therapy. In Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2010 IEEE International Conference on (pp. 4354-4359). IEEE.
- Robins, B., Dickerson P., Stribling P., and Dautenhahn, K. (2004). Robot-Mediated Joint Attention in Children with Autism: A Case Study in Robot-Human Interaction. Interaction Studies, 5(2): 161-198.
Ryan Spence is a 4th year Physiology and Neuroscience major at UCSD. His career goal is to become a sports medicine physician. Aside from his contributions to RADLab, Ryan is affiliated with other organizations including Collaboration for Neuroscience and he is a UCSD Project Success Tutor. He is also an avid crime fighter and a moderate recycler.
Posted Feb 21 2017
10 Tips for Navigating an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) Meeting
As a graduate student completing training to be a speech-language pathologist, I completed a clinical rotation at a local elementary school and contributed to Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for children demonstrating a wide variety of communication needs, including children on the autism spectrum.
Though my classes and clinical training prepared me for the IEP process, the hands-on experience of participating in these meetings was a massive learning experience for me. I hope that some of what I have learned will be helpful and interesting to families that are working with their children’s schools to develop their own IEPs. The following is a brief list of tips and suggestions for approaching your next IEP meeting.
1. Remember that you are an important member of the IEP team!
While other members of the IEP team have expertise in education, communication, physical development and more, you are an expert on your child. You have valuable information about your child’s skills that cannot be provided by anyone else.
2. Get to know the team!
IEP team members can include the general education teacher, education specialists, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists and more. Each person is dedicated to supporting your child in unique—but often related—areas. Understanding who is responsible for what helps you direct comments and questions to the appropriate team member.
3. Understand your child’s options for services.
As the name implies, each child’s education plan is individualized, or tailored to their needs. This individualization includes varying levels of support, as well as varying contexts for those services. For example, services can be provided in the context of their general education classrooms. These are called “push in” services. Alternately, children may work with the specialists in separate classrooms, either individually or in small groups. These are called “pull out” services because the child is pulled from his or her classroom. Finally, children may spend portions of the day or full days in special education classrooms. Discuss your child’s areas of strength and areas of need with the team to determine which of these options best fits your child’s needs.
4. Familiarize yourself with the IEP document.
Written IEPs can be lengthy documents—knowing types of information to expect helps you follow information presented during the meeting. Information included in IEPs includes—but is not limited to—the following:
a. Current performance reflects how the child is currently performing in school. Information is collected through a review of the child’s schoolwork, formal and informal assessments administered by IEP team members, and observations made by the team members.
It can be helpful to you to know the tools that were used to determine your child’s level of performance. It is also important to consider whether the profile painted by the team matches your expectations, and to give them feedback (see Tip #6!).
b. Annual goals. Two sets of goals will be discussed at the meeting. First, you should hear about your child’s progress based on the annual goals established at the previous IEP meeting. Second, new annual goals for the coming year should be presented.
Your child’s goals dictate the skills that are targeted most heavily during services, so they are an incredibly important component of the IEP meeting and document. Goals should target areas of weakness that are identified by team, including you!
Strong goals are also measurable. It is helpful to ask the team members how exactly they will determine when your child has met his or her goal.
c. Service delivery. The document should clearly describe your child’s services, including how often they will be provided and how long they will last. For example, you might hear that your child will receive 26 hours of speech and language services per year in a separate classroom. It is helpful to ask what this means for them on a weekly basis. For example, how often are they being pulled out of their general education classroom?
5. Remember that this document is only a draft!
The meeting is an opportunity for the IEP team—including you—to engage in a conversation about the proposed plan for your child. Based on the discussions at that meeting, any number of revisions may be proposed and approved. For example, if you have a specific area of concern that is not addressed in the IEP, you can suggest that a goal be added to your child’s plan. You can also ask that goals be altered, or removed.
6. Comment and ask questions throughout the meeting
. There are many specific terms associated with service delivery and educational settings that may not be familiar to you—it is always appropriate to ask other members of the team to clarify what they mean. It is also appropriate to ask any other questions that come to mind—how was the child’s progress monitored? What tools were used to determine his or her current levels of performance? Why were these goals selected?
7. Come prepared.
It is helpful to organize your thoughts about your child’s areas of strength and weakness going in to the meeting. You may want to review your child’s previous IEP document to review their previous goals and help you consider the progress that has been made in the past year (Your child’s school should be able to provide those documents at any time!) It may also be helpful to brainstorm with trusted individuals that know your child.
Preparing notes for the meeting may help you make sure that all of your ideas are communicated when you meet with the team. You may also want to bring relevant medical records or examples of your child’s performance (like written materials, or audio/video recordings) that demonstrate his/her strengths or your concerns.
8. Sign the document only when you are ready
. The IEP document details the plans for your child for the coming year, and you may wish to take more time to review it. Though it is possible to sign and approve the document at the end of the meeting, you are also able to take the document home to review it more carefully or to share it with others before approving it. Further modifications, should you want them, would also be possible.
9. Consider bringing a trusted person with you
. If you would like, it is possible to have a trusted friend, family member or other service provider sit in on the meeting to provide an additional perspective on your child’s needs. If you plan on someone attending the meeting with you, it is helpful to let your school know.
10. Ask for accommodations
. Efforts can be made for you and your child to have a more successful IEP process. Particularly in the case of culturally and linguistically families, accommodations are necessary.
For example, if your family speaks a language other than English at home, it is important that your child’s skills in each language are accounted for. Additionally, if you would like an interpreter present, the school is required to provide one.
Additional detailed information is available at the following sites: http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/se/sr/iepresources.asp
Irina Potapova is a 4th year student in the Joint Doctoral Program in Language and Communicative Disorders at San Diego State University and the University of California San Diego. She is concurrently completing the clinical training necessary to become a certified speech-language pathologist at SDSU. To maintain a work/life balance throughout grad school, Irina splits her time between her labs, the beach, Balboa Park and anywhere she can find a good burrito.
Posted Feb 8 2017
Classroom Benefits of Aerobic Activity
Our doctors and other public health officials regularly remind us of the importance of exercise for both short- and long-term health benefits. As a scientist, I am fond of pointing folks to studies linking aerobic exercise and memory improvements including numerous studies in both animal models and humans. What may be less obvious are the links between physical activity in kids and the kind of attentive classroom behavior needed for learning.
A study was published recently in Pediatrics
detailing the positive effects of aerobic cycling on behavioral self-regulation and classroom functioning among children with behavioral health disorders, such as autism, ADHD, anxiety and mood disorders. There are several reasons why I find this important. First, children with behavioral health disorders tend to participate less in aerobic exercise. Second, although there is ample research demonstrating the links between exercise and mood and behavioral improvements, much less research speaks directly to how that works in an educational setting and even less in kids with behavioral health disorders (note that this study was conducted in a K-10 school specifically for kids with behavioral health disorders). Third, the authors note that adaptive physical education activities often aim for laudable goals such as improved social skills, teamwork and motor skill development, but do so to the detriment of longer bouts of aerobic exercise. For each of these reasons, it is useful to study the effects of aerobic activity on school-related behaviors in children with behavioral health disorders.
The scientists found improved behavioral regulation, and reduced impulsivity and frequency of mood swings on the cycling days. Importantly, the same effect was observed, but to a lesser degree, during the rest of the cycling activity weeks. This kind of study is particularly nice because it uses something called a crossover design. All of the kids in the school (save for one with a medical exemption) participated in the study. Half of the kids had the cycling intervention in the Fall, while the other had standard physical education class, and then the groups switched in the Spring. This kind of design increases the likelihood that the effects observed are actually due to the intervention itself and not some accident of random assignment of kids to each group.
How can we use what we’ve learned from research to benefit our children? Physical education in schools is essential, and so is recess. The substantial reduction in time out of class for behavioral issues as well as improvements in self-regulation on the day of the aerobic exercise suggests that the kid who needs to move the most may be the kid who is sitting it out, having lost his recess privilege for his inability to regulate his behavior earlier in the day. Withholding physical activity is likely to lead to an even worse afternoon for that child. Given these data, perhaps it is worth finding another way to remediate behavior that would benefit the child, the teacher, and the rest of the class. Remember that the study also showed behavioral benefits for the rest of the week, not just PE days. Furthermore, finding ways to increase a child’s physical activity outside of school can also improve behavioral performance in school.
I will admit that my kids get a lot more exercise than my husband or I do. However, we do like to hike, climb, and bike together. At home we also play ping-pong and Just Dance for the Wii. Now it’s your turn. What are your favorite activities to get aerobic exercise for you and your child? If you don’t have one yet, perhaps some suggestions from the community will bring new ideas to get your family up and moving, and quite possibly also more “on task” in school and work.
For more reading on links between movement and cognition with several links to the primary literature, check out this Guardian article
from last June.
Leanne Chukoskie is an Assistant Research Scientist at UC San Diego and the Associate Director of RADLab. When away from work, she enjoys frolicking with the human and canine members of her family.
Posted Jan 25 2017
Gaze Contingent Games for Vision Therapy
Optimal vision is not defined as seeing 20/20;
rather it is the ability to successfully coordinate and control eye movements to achieve visual fluency in a dynamic environment. Currently,vision therapy utilizes various tools to address vision problems such as convergence insufficiency, ocularmotor control, and eye movements (saccades and smooth pursuit). Past studies have found that vision therapy is most successful when office-based vision therapy is paired with supplementary home training. Office-based vision therapy sessions can range from thirty minutes to one hour in duration on a weekly basis, but is highly dependent on the individualized plan recommended by the optometrist. Depending on the diagnosis, home training can vary, but most require a commitment of thirty minutes a day for five days a week. At the end of the training plan, the optometrist conducts an evaluation examination, assessing patient progress.
As an undergraduate student at a major research university and future optometrist, I am interested in gaining insight on how we can develop more sophisticated and effective game-based technology to support active vision in a broad range of vision therapy patients. Utilizing the attention training games already developed by the Research on Autism and Development Lab (RADLab), we will collaborate with a local optometrist, Claude Valenti, O.D., specializing in vision therapy to identify attributes of our games that align with the goals of vision training.
Our current study
with individuals in the autism spectrum is an eight-week attention training study, with pre- and post-training evaluations. The games are designed to improve attention orienting and are played using a portable video-based eye-tracking device, which allows individuals to use their eyes to play. The portable eye tracker and others like it are inexpensive devices (approximately $100-200) that enable us to engage participants in play at home. For evaluations of training effectiveness, we use a lab-based eye tracker that can detect even very small movements accurately and with better timing precision (but with a much larger price tag). We also working with a new glasses-style eye tracker that would support this sort of gaze-contingent game play for individuals who have difficulty establishing and keeping the still posture needed for the portable eye tracker.
By working closely with Dr. Valenti and his team, we hope to develop both new games and new eye-tracking methods for playing them that would benefit a wider range of clinical populations. As a recent recipient of a competitive Frontiers in Innovation Scholars Program (FISP) award from UC San Diego, and also someone who will begin optometry school in the Fall, I see engaging in this sort of interdisciplinary research as crucial for the advancement of both cognitive neuroscience and optometry fields. I hope to integrate gaze-contingent methods into my own behavioral optometry practice some day, providing families an objective way to improve skills both at home and at the office. I also hope that this sort of collaborative research can either create or refute support for vision therapy, which currently lacks a strong empirical evidence base as a therapy for disorders of learning and reading. We need to collaborate in order to devise the kind of studies that will test vision therapy in individuals who are still developing and using active vision to understand the world around them.
1. Scheiman M., Mitchell, G.L., Cotter, S., Kulp, M.T., Cooper, J., Rouse., M. Borsting, E., London, R., Wensveen., J. (2005) A randomized clinical trial of vision therapy/orthoptics versus pencil pushups for the treatment of convergence insufficiency in young adults. Optom. Vis. Sci. July: 82(7): 883-95.
Jackie Nguyen is a 4th year General Biology major at UCSD. Her career goal is to become a behavioral optometrist and practice vision therapy. Aside from her contributions to RADLab , Jackie is affiliated with numerous organizations including Phi Beta Kappa, College Ambassador program, Insight Pre-Optometry Club, and the Student Foundation. She is also an avid runner.
Posted Jan 23 2017
TWO RADLab Undergrads
Receive FISP Awards
RADLab is proud to announce that not one, but TWO, of its undergraduates have received a FISP award to engage in student-centered research. Each student will receive funds from the UCSD Frontiers of Innovation Scholars Program (FISP) symposium at UC San Diego to perform research designed to enrich human life and society.
Jackie Nguyen will be investigating gaze-contingent games for vision therapy in diverse populations, which also follows the trajectory of her career path as she prepares to study and practice vision therapy via Optometry school. See a more in depth explanation of Jackie’s study in our blog.
Ryan Spence will be researching the effects of robot interaction as an intermediary to improve sensory and motor behavior in children with ASD. To find out more about our robot, CARBO, and the study, check out the recruitment page.
Posted Dec 1 2016
Joint Doctoral Student presents at FISP Symposium
4th year JD Language and Communicative Disorders student, Irina Potapova, presented her research at the UCSD Frontiers of Innovation Scholars Program (FISP) sy
mposium at UC San Diego on October 18th. The FISP symposium is a celebration of awards made for undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral research that is interdisciplinary in nature and involving mentors from at least two divisions at UC San Diego. Ms. Potapova was awarded a graduate fellowship to work with Leanne Chukoskie and Jeanne Townsend to use eye tracking as a sensitive online assessment of novel word learning
in young children both with and without language disorders.