Our ability to communicate socially and our ability to interact with our social environments—to adapt to emotions perceived in others, to understand, innately, how we fit into social hierarchies, our ability to ask questions and provide answer—these skills allow us to form social contracts and excel within the boundaries of social mores. These skills are essential to how we interact with others, but individuals on the autism spectrum may find learning them challenging, and these challenges may lead to difficulties communicating with others in social contexts.
Dr. Amy Donaldson, a practicing speech-language pathologist, is an Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Speech & Hearing Sciences and Director of the Autism & Child Language Disorders Laboratory. In her work, Dr. Donaldson studies the assessment and intervention of social communication skills in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as well as intervention efficacy.
According to Autism Speaks’ “Facts about Autism” page, ASD is the fastest growing developmental disability in the U.S., affecting one in 88 children. There is no medical detection or cure for autism. Compounding this data is the fact that the National Institutes of Health provides only $169 million of their $30.86 billion budget for autism research: a total of just 0.55% of available NIH funding.
After earning a MS in Speech-Language Pathology from Gallaudet University is D.C., Dr. Donaldson joined Associated Learning & Language Specialists as the Director of School Programs in Redwood City, CA. During her time there she became concerned that treatment options for parents of children with ASD were limited and seldom backed by scientific evidence.
“Parents were looking for answers,” said Donaldson, “and I began to feel the families we were serving deserved better answers than what they were getting. I wanted to provide those answers and impact the field in a broader way. I wanted to add to our knowledge-base and help identify ways to support kids and families on the spectrum. So I decided to go back to school for a Ph.D.”
Dr. Donaldson received her doctoral degree from the University of Washington in 2005. She joined the faculty of PSU four years later.
“My interests are in clinically-based research, studying intervention efficacy and social communication. And it’s not just looking at speech; it’s about looking at the intentionality of communication in children with ASD, their engagement, reciprocity, and play, the things that motivate them to move forward in their communication.”
Developing the communication skills needed to successfully interact with family, teachers, peers, and others is one of the greatest challenges an individual with ASD might face. Interventions are the best studied and validated behavioral treatments for autism. These goal-oriented interactions encourage the development of communication, language, positive social behaviors and relief from disruptive self-stimulatory behaviors. Research projects underway in the Autism & Child Language Disorders Lab are measuring the efficacy of two interventions. The studies are also the training grounds for graduate students pursuing a Masters of Arts or Science degree in speech-language pathology at PSU.
“One project the lab is currently involved in is the Advancing Social Communication and Play (ASAP) study,” said Donaldson. “The project is an intervention study led by Drs. Brian Boyd and Linda Watson from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The project examines how we can train preschool teams to implement a social communication and play-based intervention for children with ASD and test the efficacy of that intervention.”
The ASAP project is a multi-site randomized controlled trial active in four areas of the U.S.: Oregon/Washington, North Carolina, Florida, and Minnesota. The project is funded by a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences.
SocialsibS, an Autism Speaks-funded study, examines the effects of sibling-mediation and video modeling on the social communication behaviors of young children on the spectrum and their families.
“In this study, we’re combining two social communication interventions that have been found effective,” Donaldson said. “One is peer mediation where a sibling teaches the child with ASD skills and behaviors to facilitate social communication and interaction. The other is video modeling. We record discrete social communication behaviors and support the child when he or she practices those behaviors. We’re looking for possible changes in social communication behaviors between the siblings, including engagement: are the children unengaged, are they only engaged with an object or toy, are they engaged with the person around an object? We’re also examining how well graduate student clinicians can learn to implement evidence-based intervention practices with children on the spectrum and their families.”
Dr. Donaldson notes that one of the key tenants to intervention for children with ASD is motivation: if the child is engaged in a motivating activity, the interaction within that context can become the key to opening other social communication skills. Finding those keys, unlocking the doors to social communication, and helping families with children on the ASD spectrum is what motivates Dr. Donaldson to pursue her research and to train students to become the next generation of speech-language pathologists. With the growing prevalence of children diagnosed with ASD here in the States and elsewhere, the findings produced by Dr. Donaldson’s current and future studies could provide parents of children with autism the treatment and answers they may be looking for.