KINGSTON — Professors at the University of Rhode Island’s new Collaborative Cognitive Neuroscience Lab are partnering with research scientists Julia Irwin and Nicole Landi at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven to better understand how children with autism spectrum disorder learn language.

Haskins is a private, nonprofit research institute affiliated with Yale University and the University of Connecticut. The researchers will study how children with autism integrate visual information with what they hear, compared with their typically developing peers, and how that affects their ability to learn language.

URI’s portion of the study, led by Alisa Baron and Vanessa Harwood, assistant professors of communicative disorders, will focus on children ages 10 through 18 with autism spectrum disorder. The study will incorporate electroencephalogram sensors that monitor brain activity with eye-tracking technology to determine the level of audiovisual integration occurring as children observe the speech from human and computer-animated faces.

“One way we learn language is by looking at people’s faces and expressions and watching how their mouths move in addition to listening to what they are saying,” said Baron. “In children with autism, we find that they have difficulty making eye contact or looking at peoples’ faces as they speak. So they are missing out on critical information regarding language and communication.”

URI will work through its Speech and Hearing Center as well as through the Rhode Island Consortium on Autism Research and Treatment to recruit participants. Recruitment is expected to begin late this summer. Researchers will work with participants to acclimate them to the research process. Study participants will be required to participate in several sessions that will include behavioral testing and an experimental portion.

“This is a very special population and we appreciate their willingness to be a part of this study. We want to make certain that we are doing everything we can to ensure their comfort and successful participation,” said Harwood. “Our goal for the end result of this study is to develop effective interventions that will support and reinforce those types of looking behaviors that may help improve language processing.”

In addition to recruiting children with the disorder, researchers are also inviting parents of children with autism to participate in the study to learn more about how they process language.

URI's Collaborative Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, part of the College of Health Sciences, is a multidisciplinary team of researchers dedicated to translational research that combines neuroscience and clinical practice. The lab draws from disciplines including communicative disorders, psychology, neuroscience, education, kinesiology and foreign language.

In addition to its formal affiliations with UConn and Yale , Haskins Laboratories maintains collaborations and partnerships with institutions around the world. This is the first collaboration between Haskins and URI.

Baron and Harwood, in a joint statement, said, “We are grateful for this partnership and the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way to moving autism research and interventions forward. We look forward to a long and successful relationship.”

Parents who are interested in finding out more about how they or their children can participate should email ccnl@etal.uri.edu.

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