UMN researchers begin new study on childhood autism

The project is being funded by a $2.4 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Caitlin Anderson

The University of Minnesota’s special education department will begin a new study this fall to analyze behaviors present in children with autism to develop effective treatment. 

The team, based out of the Department of Educational Psychology, began a five-year, $2.4 million research project to research these behaviors after receiving a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health in August. 

“The long-term goal is a couple things, one is to see if we can identify early predictors of these behaviors so that we could possibly prevent them,” said Jason Wolff, the principal investigator of the study. “The other component is to see if we can leverage this information to develop or innovate new interventions that don’t currently exist.”

The research will combine developmental behavioral and sensory data with brain imaging of children with and without autism over an extended period of time, Wolff said. The researchers will use this evidence to more effectively treat or prevent certain outcomes later in life. Treatment or prevention methods could range from treating sensory reactivity to preventing self-injurious behavior, he said.

Wolff’s research is developing an evidence-based approach for treating autism, an approach that has been severely lacking in the field, he said.

“We’re hoping this is a way to gain more knowledge to directly assess people. Our big goal is to try to give tools that are more effective and more direct,” said Alyssa Merbler, a graduate research assistant doing data analysis for the project.

Ellie Wilson, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, said she hopes to use these practices to better help those with autism.

“Once we know [the behaviors and sensory responses], we can take the next step to develop our evidence-based practices for what we can do to support people with autism,” she said. 

The University will serve as the primary research site among four others across the country. The other sites will include the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Washington, Washington University in St. Louis and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

“We have technology now where we can possibly identify which children are going to develop autism and what sorts of behaviors they might develop,” Wolff said. “And to use that to help get them on a track that maybe certain outcomes don’t happen.”

Wilson said in addition to more autism research, people living with autism need more social support.

“The best thing that we can do is build our larger community to be more accepting and understanding, and also informed,” Wilson said.