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College of Arts and Sciences

Psychology professor Jane Roberts and students

Piecing together the Autism puzzle

Research in psychology professor Jane Roberts’ lab connects social and biological science to improve health of children and families.

Time is an important factor to researchers in Jane Roberts’ Neurodevelopmental Disorders Lab.

Roberts and her team spend years following children who are at risk for autism spectrum disorder. They look closely for early signs of autism in infants, toddlers and preschoolers as well as in siblings. Though the average age of diagnosis for a child with autism is around 4, half of children with the disorder show signs in their first year, and 80 percent display symptoms in their first two years.

Roberts’ focus is to collect precise data on these signs and symptoms so diagnosis and treatment can begin as soon as possible. She is one of handful of researchers nationwide who study the relationship between autism and fragile X, a single-gene disorder that is the No.1 known genetic cause of autism.

“If you diagnose and treat early, you reduce costs for treating throughout the child’s lifetime by 50 percent or greater,” she says. “It also improves quality of life.”

Roberts, a psychology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, recently published a study comparing autism symptoms in infants with fragile X to those displayed by younger siblings of autistic children, which is another high-risk group. The results show that babies with fragile X displayed more prevalent and severe autistic behaviors than the siblings.  

The lab’s other ongoing studies that are part of piecing together the overall puzzle of this complicated disorder include looking at ties between anxiety and autism and exploring physiological indicators.

Abigail Hogan, a postdoctoral fellow who has worked in Roberts’ lab for a year, is exploring anxiety in infant siblings of children who have autism. Early signs of anxiety, whether behavioral like excessive fear of strangers or physiological like increased heart rates, shed light on possible connections to anxiety disorders or autism later in childhood.

“We’re trying to change the trajectory as early as possible,” Hogan says. “Intervening in the toddler and preschool years has positive impacts in adolescence. Especially because anxiety is so responsive to early intervention, this is a great way to make an impact.”

So far Hogan has studied children at 12 months old and is about to begin following the same group into their toddler years and preschool. She will then compare data to what she learned during their infancy.  

Hogan admits one of the most challenging aspect of her research is waiting.

“I think because we’re watching things unfold over time you have to be patient,” she says. “There’s no instant gratification, and that can be challenging from a scientific perspective, but also this is a beautiful model.”

Hogan and Roberts work with graduate and undergraduate students throughout the year in the lab, which further enhances their work and contributes to the collaborative learning environment in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Nicolas Poupore, a biology major who graduated this month, completed his honors thesis looking further into how a child’s heart rate under certain scenarios can predict autism. He also studied younger siblings of children with autism.

His oral presentation took first place in a social sciences section at Discover USC. Poupore also presented posters at the Southeastern Psychological Association in Atlanta and at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Memphis, Tennessee.

The time spent working in Roberts’ lab for almost a year taught Poupore the value of critical thinking and analysis.

“The cool thing about research is you are solving problems and answering questions that have never been done before,” he says.

Poupore will begin working in the Neurodevelopment Disorders Lab full-time this summer and plans to apply for medical school. Learning more about the ties between biology and psychology within the complexity of autism sparked his curiosity. Because of this experience, Poupore may consider pediatrics, neurology or psychiatry in the future.

Roberts, too, has always found the connections between physiology and behavior fascinating. Her lab’s work showcases how the university’s research in social and biological sciences interconnect and ultimately work to improve health and well-being of children and families.

“Genetic factors are critical to consider, but they are never the complete story,” she says. “The environment plays such an important role in both typical and atypical development. The intersection of the environment, biology and behavior is where my research program focuses.”