Dr. Amy Van Hecke is an Assistant Professor in our Psychology Department whose research on the AUTISM SPECTRUM has gained much local attention in the media and an increasing national reputation. Here, she provides a brief update on the happenings in her research lab:
Autism research in the Van Hecke lab is in full swing. Our two PEERS (Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills) intervention groups for adolescents with autism spectrum disorders began in August. Intakes are currently being conducted for the young adult PEERS group that will start in mid-October. PEERS is an outpatient friendship-skills class developed at UCLA, and we are providing replication data to ensure the intervention is effective outside of California. We’ve also added a component where we examine neural and physiological responses to the PEERS intervention. Our central aim to determine whether making friends affects brain activity and cardiovascular regulation in individuals with autism, and early data indicates that changes in brain activity, due to the intervention, occur in the frontal and temporal cortices.
A number of student projects have stemmed from this study- Jeff Karst, MA, is looking at how the intervention affects parents’ mental health, stress, and parenting efficacy. Sheryl Stevens, MA, is looking at how brain activity to a video of another teen changes due to the intervention, in teens with autism. Kirsten Schohl just finished a thesis that provided replication data for PEERS being effective outside of California. Lastly, Bridget Dolan, PEERS research coordinator, is looking at how in vivo interactions with other teens change due to the program.
A number of our undergraduates are also submitting posters to upcoming conferences, including Janel Wasisco, who hopes to present data on how PEERS affects self esteem and social anxiety, at the International Meeting for Autism Research in San Sebastian, Spain, next May. Lucky for us, Janel will be studying abroad in Spain when the conference occurs, so we’ll have representation! Special thanks go to Marquette and the Autism Society of SE WI for supporting this important work, which we hope to continue-our waiting lists continue to grow, and we are still seeking grants that would let us run more PEERS groups. Regardless, it seems like we have discovered the trick to easy research subject recruitment- offer an effective intervention for free, and they will come!”