As a researcher focusing on autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I have spent many years talking to families about participating in research studies. I try to express the importance of research, why it matters, how it can help us to support children and families, and how much progress we’ve made because of it. But 3 years ago – when I had my son – my appreciation for research changed in ways I hadn’t expected.
My area of expertise is early development in ASD; I’m particularly interested in early signs and symptoms, and early language and communication development. As I watched my son progress through infancy, toddlerhood, and now the preschool years, I was struck by how many things he does that are typically considered features of ASD. This is all the more interesting to me because he does not have ASD. For instance, he is a transportation enthusiast (as many young boys are, whether they have ASD or not). We have the good fortune of living on greater Boston’s public transportation system, and he quickly latched on to some catch phrases from the train. I’d hear him rattle them off throughout the day: “The next Red Line train to Braintree is now arriving!” or “Next stop, Central Square.” This kind of language use – repeating phrases verbatim, complete with mimicry of intonation – is considered one of the features of ASD, but of course, all children do this in some way. There were so many other ways in which my son made me re-think the way that we define which behaviors are “autistic” and which are just part of human development, broadly speaking.
So, I began to change the way I approached my research. I began to ask more questions focusing on the ways in which children with ASD follow the same developmental paths as children without ASD, rather than different ones. For instance, typically developing children are skilled in eavesdropping! It’s a great strategy to learn new words. No one had ever looked at whether children with ASD were able to do this; we have the first study underway. Under a barrage of inquiries from my supremely curious 3 year old (“What if I was a baby giraffe?…Do airplanes get hungry?…When do you get frustrated?…Why do I speak English?”), I began to wonder, what kinds of questions do children with ASD ask their parents? These are rich learning experiences for children to deepen and widen their knowledge of so many topics, and they’re very much driven by the child him-/herself. So we’re writing a parent survey to learn just that. I’m looking forward to finding the answers, and more than that, I’m looking forward to all the other exciting new ideas that surface in the years ahead.
To learn more about Dr. Luyster’s work, visit her website at little.emerson.edu.
Rhiannon Luyster is an Assistant Professor in Communication Sciences and Disorders and director of the Lab for Infant + Toddler Language at Emerson College. Her research focuses on early social communication and language development in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). She loves baking, traveling and playing with her 3-year old son.