The past decade has been a time of great advances in research exploring the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a complex developmental disorder that affects behavior, communication, social interaction, and learning.
However, there still remains a number of children with ASD—a group that some experts estimate could be as high as 30 percent—who may never develop functional language skills or learn to speak, in spite of having access to early intervention and intensive therapies. As they grow, these children develop few ways to communicate verbally with others. They are cut off from one of the most basic of human needs—self-expression and connection with other people.
To find out more about this little-studied group of children with ASD, the NIDCD recently awarded a grant to Boston University to look more closely at the children's underlying skills and impairments. They are studying how the use of creative and carefully targeted interventions could potentially help them develop basic communication skills. The $10 million grant, awarded over five years, is one of nine Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2012.
The NIDCD grant will allow researchers led by Helen Tager-Flusberg, Ph.D., professor of psychology, to direct an ACE based at Boston University that pulls together other NIDCD-funded researchers from the university. There are also collaborators from Harvard Medical School and Northeastern University, also in Boston, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York. The ACE funding gives them the opportunity to collaborate and apply what they know about the acquisition and production of language to better understand these challenged children.
This center will be asking some big questions about what makes these children different from other children with ASD. Researchers will take several different approaches to these problems, by using brain imaging techniques to look at auditory processing and the systems and connections involved in initiating and producing speech. They will also be testing a novel intervention that has appeared promising in preliminary studies, and which, if successful, will tell the researchers quite a bit about why these children previously failed to acquire spoken language skills.
"The sad truth is that despite the enormous growth in autism research, these minimally verbal children have been neglected in terms of our research population, primarily because they are so difficult to recruit and study," says Dr. Tager-Flusberg. "If we don't address the fundamental research questions about the nature of the problems for these children, we'll never be able to figure out interventions that could help them acquire spoken language."