Lab Studies Nonverbal Communication Skills in Autistic Children

By Colby Gallagher

Published on December 20, 2019

It’s known that children with autism often have difficulties with communication and there are interventions to help with speech and language, but where the research is lacking is in how to improve nonverbal communication skills, according to Ashley de Marchena, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, and director of the USciences InterAction Lab.

“The kids that we focus on in my lab are verbally fluent, they use language,” said. Dr. de Marchena. “But where they struggle is in these subtler forms of communication and we don’t really have a good sense of how to treat that.”

To find these nuances, Dr. de Marchena’s lab studies children with autism and typically-developing children between the ages of 6 and 12. Each child is brought in for two two-hour long sessions that are separated by at least a week and a half.

Mikaela Giuliani BMS’20 is one of nine students who work in the lab; her role is to help administer tests to the children and collect data.

“We do different tasks that are kind of playing, whether it’s just coloring, building blocks, different things like that,” said Giuliani. “We weave in certain cues to see how they react to things that we say and then hopefully when we find those differences down the line, we can implement things we’ve learned into different treatment options to help better the quality of life for those children.”

While coloring with a child, Giuliani may cough and express that her throat is dry while looking at a nearby bottle of water to see how he or she reacts. If the child offers the administrator the water, that would show they are picking up complex social cues, that incorporate both language and nonverbal behavior (in this case, the direction of the speaker’s gaze) . 

“This is important to us because at the end of the day, we care about how kids with autism are functioning in their everyday life,” said de Marchena. “We try and examine communication skills in that context.”

Mikaela Giuliani BMS'20 runs an experimentThis is just one of four different experiments administered at the lab following more structured psychological testing.

The research is currently supported by a grant through the American Speech and Hearing Association. Research in the lab is interdisciplinary and intersects with many fields, including speech pathology, psychology, pediatrics, neurology, and occupational therapy. As such, students from many majors across campus are part of the research team, which currently includes 8 undergraduates and one graduate student in health psychology.

As a fourth-year student not interested in conducting research in the typical lab setting, Giuliani said this was the perfect fit to gain research experience in a field she’s interested in.

“Having clinical research experience is something that not only helps me stand out as a prospective grad student, but it’s opened my eyes to a different part of medicine that I hadn’t considered much before,” said Giuliani. “I never thought I’d be involved with research, but I love everything that we do here.”

Outside of class, Giuliani helps care for a 10-year-old girl with autism. She said this lab has also helped her develop skills she implements as a caretaker.

She now encourages other students to explore their options and find a lab that fits their goals.

“It’s really unique that we have so many different research opportunities and because of the small class sizes and close relationships with our professors, we’re able to act upon them and become involved in so many different opportunities here,” she said.

Students who are comfortable working with children, have a positive attitude, and have a general interest in child psychology would be a good fit for the lab, according to de Marchena. Student roles vary from running experiments to finding participants or screening children for eligibility and shadowing others.

Categories: News, Misher College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences, Psychology, Neuroscience, Faculty, Research, Students