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New Study to Focus on Emotional Patterns of Children With Autism

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Cal State Fullerton researchers are embarking on a new study to better understand the emotional patterns of children with autism spectrum disorder, which can contribute to behavioral difficulties, affect learning and pose challenges for parents.

Autism researchers Jason Baker and Rachel Fenning, both assistant professors of child and adolescent studies and co-directors of CSUF’s Center for Autism, will direct the study, funded by a $412,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health-Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The research project will investigate how different emotional patterns predict various strengths and challenges in children with autism spectrum disorder, said Baker.

“We’ll look at individual emotional tendencies and consider which support strategies appear to be a good fit for reducing challenging behaviors and promoting learning readiness for different types of children,” he said.

The project is an outgrowth of a pilot study conducted by Baker and Fenning that also focused on parent-child interaction and emotion control in children with autism spectrum disorder.

For the new study, set to begin this summer, the researchers are recruiting 75 children 6- to 10- years-old with autism spectrum disorder, and their primary caregivers or parents. Children and their families will participate in a laboratory visit and parents will complete interviews and questionnaires. Newly developed technology will be used in the lab setting to record and measure children’s emotional patterns.

“Our hope is that this study will help families and professionals better tailor support strategies to help children with autism spectrum disorder manage their behavior, as well as enhance their long-term health,” added Fenning.

Another major project goal is student involvement: “The federal government is interested in exposing more students at universities like ours to large research projects, which dovetails well with our emphasis on mentorships and high-impact practices,” Baker noted.

A number of undergraduates and master’s-level students will be involved in the project over the three-year period. Their participation will give hands-on training and prepare them for advanced studies and careers in the biobehavioral (biological, psychological and behavioral) sciences.

Senior Jacquelyn Moffitt, a psychology major, knows the rewards of doing autism-related research. As a freshman, the President’s Scholar began working as a student research assistant with Baker and Fenning.   

“I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in all aspects of the research process from data collection to presentation of our findings at regional and national conferences,” said Moffitt, coordinator of the Child & Adolescent Studies Family Research Lab.

The research experience also is helping Moffitt prepare for a doctoral program and a future career as a clinical psychologist.

“Through my work, I have realized how much I enjoy working with children with developmental disabilities and their families. The work we do is very exciting and interesting academically, but also very fulfilling on a personal level.”

For more information about participating in the study, visit the Center for Autism website or call 657-278-1088.