Suskind sparks autism research

A partnership between Yale researchers and the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Ron Suskind may lead to new treatments for autism.

Four autism researchers, including two Yale professors, are designing a study in which autistic children will undergo affinity therapy, in which movie character role-play will be used to develop social communication skills. The affinity therapy study will be conducted in addition to an ongoing study that exposes autistic children to pivotal response treatment. In both studies, social and behavioral development are measured through clinical assessments and quantified through functional MRI scans and EEG, which measure brain activity.

“We are interested in exploring what affinity therapy might be about and how we can do it in addition to the PRT work we currently have going,” said Pamela Ventola, a professor at the Child Study Center at Yale and one of the four investigators.

The term “affinity therapy” was coined by Suskind in a piece he wrote for The New York Times Magazine in March about the challenges of communicating with his autistic son Owen, who was often incomprehensible to his parents and mumbled gibberish. Owen loved to watch Disney movies and through Disney character role-play, Suskind was able to have his first conversation with his son, three years after Owen developed autism at age 3. In the video embedded in Suskind’s article, father and son communicate fluently.

Inspired by Suskind’s work, the researchers hope to further explore role-playing, said John Gabrieli, a professor in Health Sciences and Technology and Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT and one of the researchers drafting the study. Gabrieli said that many children with autism have restricted interests, and that affinity therapy is intriguing because it views those restricted interests as a bridge to broader communication and a tool for teaching social skills.

Autism researchers have known for a long time to use children’s interests as a means of teaching social skills and increasing development, said Fred Volkmar, chair of the Yale Child Study Center and autism researcher.

Volkmar said a paper he, Ventola, and seven others published in 2012 showed brain changes in two autistic children who underwent PRT. The treatment is a behavioral approach that facilitates the development of social skills. An example of PRT on the website of Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organization, is that of a child requesting a stuffed animal. If the child “makes a meaningful attempt” — uses full sentences and eye contact, for example — he will get the stuffed animal.

Aubyn Stahmer, a research and clinical coordinator at UC San Diego and Rady Children’s Hospital, echoed Volkmar that therapists have been using children’s interests to facilitate social development for quite some time. She said while affinity therapy is brand new, PRT has been around for over 30 years and is more accessible due to its formalized training and procedures.

“I’m not sure anything I can find on affinity therapy is defined yet,” Stahmer said.

Since the concept of affinity therapy was coined very recently, autism experts have differing views on its impact. In an email, Volkmar said the practice should be approached as a strategy and not yet as a therapy.

Ventola said the researchers should learn from the example of Owen Suskind to develop the affinity therapy trial.

The researchers hope the affinity therapy study will be ready for trial in about one year’s time.

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