Friday, October 15, 2010

BYU student studies empathy in autistic people

From The Daily Herald in Utah:

PROVO, Utah -- There are still more questions than answers when dealing with autism and related disorders.

BYU student Oliver Johnston (pictured) is hoping to answer at least one of the questions. It's not exactly groundbreaking, he said, but even if it's not the answer to where autism comes from, it may help people to understand those with the developmental disability a little bit better.

Johnston, an accounting student from Stafford, Va., has spent the last 10 months determining if autistic children feel empathy at the same rates as other children.

He's been curious about the disability since his LDS mission in Indianapolis, when he trained two missionaries who had Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. The problems they ran into were not a lack of emotion, he said; they just didn't always know how to handle social and emotional situations.

"It's not that they don't care," he said. "It's that they maybe don't understand or that there's so much information coming in that they're not able to respond correctly."

So he teamed up with assistant psychology professor Mikle South, who was already studying autism and who'd never had an accounting major working in his lab before. South and Johnston used an electroencephalography machine, which measures electricity in the brain, to watch for patterns among autistic children. Johnston said every brain puts off electricity; the amount varies according to the person's emotions at the time.

Previous tests have shown that when a person makes a mistake, an EEG machine picks up a specific brainwave associated with that. It picks up a similar electric reaction when a person is watching someone who makes a mistake.

Johnston hooked autistic children up to the EEG machine by putting a net of electrodes on the children's heads and measuring the electricity put off by their brains as they watched people make mistakes. The neurological reaction thus far seems to be similar to the reaction of the non-autistic developing minds, though the outward reaction was different.

"What we view as empathy or anxiety or understanding other people is viewed differently if you have autism," South said.

This research has yet to be peer-reviewed, so it is still preliminary, he said. However, the research Johnston is doing is in line with autism research South has already published, which shows that autistic children react differently. What all this points to is the need to help autistic individuals understand the world better, he said.

This is becoming increasingly significant as rates of autism increase. Judi Zimmerman, the head of autism research at the University of Utah, said data from Utah schools show that children who are classified as autistic is increasing annually. The state doesn't have rates for the last several years, but her department has received a grant to look at the prevalence of autism in children for 2008, 2010 and 2012.

Research at the U of U also includes possible risk factors, genetics, neurology and various treatment methods. They should have new numbers for prevalence rates among children in the next several months, she said.

"We're really approaching it epidemiologically," she said.