Higher Cognition in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

My Lab uses cognitive neuroscience methods to advance the study of higher cognition in autism spectrum disorders (ASD).  One aspect of this research focuses on cognitive control -- the ability to flexibly allocate mental resources to guide thoughts and actions in light of internal goals. Individuals with ASD often demonstrate inflexible thoughts and/or behavior.  We investigate whether the brain systems underlying cognitive control may be related to this characteristic behavioral rigidity.  Utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) we investigate neural activity and functional connectivity patterns associated with cognitive control in individuals with ASD. As adolescence can be a time when brain maturation processes drive significant cognitive development in individuals with ASD, we specifically examine the development of cognitive control from adolescence through young adulthood.  Our hope is to shed light on how ASD affect the brain and to inform the development of interventions that will help individuals with ASDs successfully transition into adulthood.  This research has been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (1 K08 MH074967).

In addition to cognitive control-related research, we examine learning and memory in adolescents and young adults with ASD.  We believe that individuals with ASD exhibit intact lower-level learning of items, facts, details, and routines, and may even show an over-reliance on this form of learning.  However, they manifest impairments in higher-level learning involving abstraction, problem solving, the use of self-generated conceptual schemas to organize information, and generalizing learning from one context to the next.  This uneven and situation-focused learning profile has a profound impact on the academic, social, and adaptive functioning of adolescents with ASD, and may provide an explanation for aspects of their characteristic behavioral inflexibility. Furthermore, a learning-based approach offers clear links to animal and computational model systems, thus enhancing its potential to illuminate pathophysiological mechanisms.  This Research has been funded by Autism Speaks, NARSAD (Atherton Foundation), and the National Institute of Mental Health (1 R21 MH099250-01). I also collaborate in this work with Dr. Peter Mundy and his lab, and with Dr.s. Jacqueline Crawley and Jill Silverman on animal measures of learning.

Since completing Post Doctoral training at the MIND Institute, I have supervised the MIND Institute’s Social Skills Training Program » and conducted ongoing research into the program’s effectiveness with my students.  The Social Skills program engages children aged 4-18 with social cognitive deficits. In the 20-week program, the group meets weekly for 1.5 hours to discuss topics such as recognizing ones own emotions as well as those of others, deciphering nonverbal cues, theory of mind, perspective taking, conversation and friendship skills, and individual and group problem solving.  While their children are attending these sessions, parents attend a weekly parent education/support group.  The program is one of the few empirically tested interventions for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders.  It is mentioned in the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders Evidence Base –currently the only intervention for secondary school children to be so. We are vendorized by Alta California Regional Center. The social skills program and my Lab have received a generous donation from Joyce Raley Teel and Jim Teel for the Thomas P. Raley Foundation.