Autism Social Skills Game Update

Over the last school year, we have been hard at work on developing our autism social skills video game. Undergrad students from Penn State Behrend’s Engineering department completed a demo version of the game as their senior design project. They presented on their final designs at the Fasenmyer Engineering Design Conference in May. We have new students this Summer who have taken over further development of the game at Penn State’s main campus. We look forward to testing the game this summer!


End of semester update!

The Spring semester at Penn State recently ended. This semester has been very busy for us! We recently completed the last of the 1 year follow-up sessions for the Autism Greebles intervention project. We are working on writing grants to secure long-term funding for the gaming intervention project that we are starting to develop.

I recently presented on data from the autism intervention project, as well as data from her dissertation, at the conference for the Society of Research on Child Development (SRCD) conference, at Seattle Washington, in April 2013. I received an early career travel award from SRCD to provide travel support for attending the conference. In addition, funds from the crowdfunding project were used to help supplement this support for my travel to the conference.

At the conference, I presented a talk titled “Faces may not be aversive for individuals with autism,” where she presented on neuroimaging data collected from the pre-test (baseline) testing. This conference presentation compared functional MRI data from adolescents with autism, adolescents with typical development, and typical adults. The participants viewed pictures of human faces with varying emotional expressions, as well as pictures of objects and animals (common cat and dog pet breeds). This talk compared the patterns of face-related brain activity when viewing animal faces versus human faces, and found differences in patterns of activation in the brain related to viewing human faces versus animal faces between the groups. This Human/Animal face task will also be used in the upcoming autism Gaming intervention project to track possible intervention-related changes in how the brain processes pictures of faces, and data from this task is being used as pilot data when applying for grants for our autism Gaming intervention.

In addition, at SRCD, I presented a poster based on the typically developing data from her dissertation, examining what factors best predict figurative language abilities (including knowledge of idioms such as “raining cats and dogs”), as well as pragmatic abilities (being able to produce language appropriate for the social context). The data comparing a group of children with autism to language-matched controls with typical development was recently accepted for publication by the Journal for Speech, Language and Hearing Research. I am also working on preparing a second manuscript related to the data from children with autism from this project.

Dr. Scherf is presenting on the results of additional baseline (pre-test) data from the autism greebles intervention project at the annual meeting of the Vision Sciences Society, at Naples, Florida, in May 2013. This poster is titled “Core and extended face-processing regions are hypoactive in autism and related to symptom severity”.  Dr. Scherf is also currently preparing a manuscript related to this data, examining how changes in autism symptom severity relate to patterns of brain activity when viewing pictures of human faces compared to viewing common objects, cars, and houses.


Happy Holidays from the lab!

Friday, December 14th, 2012 was the date of two very important things. First, it marked the end of our Fall semester. Second, it marked the end of our crowdfunding efforts!

Our project at Rockethub hit a total of $5,180 towards our lab’s research! While this was lower than our initial goal, the funds we have generated is still incredibly valuable for helping us accomplish our research goals. Also, more than anything, the support of the greater community, both at Penn State and outside of Penn State, has been more valuable than words. We have received many e-mails and other forms of communication from people in the community talking about how video games have touched the lives of individuals (both children and adults alike) with autism spectrum disorders. In addition, the resources we have received, in terms of support which can’t be calculated in dollars, will allow us to continue the autism research projects. As a community outreach project, participation in Scifund has been incredible for our lab. Bringing awareness of our science to the broader community was more important than we ever had imagined. So, thank you all for your help and support!

Here is a quick update about other things ongoing in our lab the last few weeks:

  • Our two new graduate students, Natalie and Giorgia, have now completed their first semester! During this semester, they wrote and submitted their very first grant application. We are still waiting to hear back about the results. Congrats guys on finishing your first semester!
  • Our lab presented on Thursday the 13th about our research to the Center for Brain, Behavior and Cognition at Penn State. Dr. Scherf gave a great presentation providing an overview of our lab’s research to the center. Dan, Elisabeth, Natalie, and Giorgia also presented on the current progress of our research projects.
  • We had our end of semester potluck event on Friday, the 14th and came together as a lab to celebrate the end of a successful semester! Our lab has made really good progress on multiple research projects, including our autism intervention research! We have had a really great semester!

Happy holidays everyone! Thank you all for supporting our research!


More press coverage of our autism research!

As part of our community outreach and crowdfunding project, we have done several interviews with media sources about our autism intervention research which have been published in the last few days! The amount of community support for our project has really been incredible!

In addition, we now have the first name of a character for our upcoming intervention project! A character in our autism intervention game is going to be named Val, after the World of Warcraft gamer Valanyce! Thanks for your support!

There is still time to donate to the autism intervention project (which runs until December 14th). Please see our rockethub page here and share the link with your social network!

Here are some links to recent media coverage of our intervention project:


Three videos on autism research

I wanted to bring attention to three videos on youtube talking about autism research!

Video game researcher, Daphne Bavelier, from the University of Geneva, recently recorded a talk on TED about her research on how playing video games can change cognitive abilities and brain development (for the better!).


Second, there is a somewhat longer video (about an hour and a half), which is the closing address from the 2012 Autism Conference at Penn State. Roy Richard Grinker, an anthropologist, from George Washington University’s talk is titled “Three perspectives on the autism epidemic”. In the talk, he covers the history of the diagnosis of autism (his talk starts about 10 minutes into the video). He has a really interesting and unique perspective as an anthropologist. Additional talks from the 2012 conference can be found here.


In addition, you can also watch the video about our autism research, as part of our crowdfunding campaign for funding the Laboratory of Developmental Neuroscience at Penn State!



Week 1 in review: Spreading the word about our science

A week ago, we started a crowdfunding campaign as part of the #Scifund Challenge. The goal of the #Scifund challenge is to make our science accessible to the community. After undergoing a form of peer review for our projects and getting feedback from other #Scifund members, all 35 projects launched on Rockethub on Monday, November 12th.

Week 1 Funding Update!

Our research project focuses on trying to improve face recognition and social skills in adolescents with autism. This includes further research on our “greebles” computer-based intervention using cartoon characters, as well as our new innovative autism video game project. As of the end of our first week, we have earned 22% of our goal, for a total of $2,135 so far! This support has come from 33 contributions! You can see a list of the people fueling our research on our Patronage page on this website. We want to thank everyone who has donated to the project so far. We have received a huge amount of support from the community. It has also been incredible to hear the stories we have received by e-mail about how Autism has impacted the lives of so many people. Our project runs until December 14th, so there is still time to help out! Donations of any size are meaningful, no matter how small, as the goal of crowdfunding is to get many people to donate small amounts to the project! You can also help out by sharing the project information with your friends and family!

Our Lab’s Research in blogs and the media!

Our project has gained a lot of support from science and video game bloggers. Here are some of the stories about our project that have helped in spreading the word about our science:

Thank you everyone who makes our science possible! I hope you all have a Happy Thanksgiving!


First day of our crowdfunding for science!

Can we make autism interventions more fun? We think we can, but we need your help! At the laboratory of developmental neuroscience at Penn State, we can use knowledge of video game design to help make interventions for adolescents with autism more fun and effective!

The scientists who started the scifund challenge suggested that the science community had two problems: 1) there isn’t enough government grant funding for all the good projects to get funded and 2) researchers need to spend more time sharing our findings with the general public. For the science community, crowdfunding is a way for us to fund our research and it is also a terrific way for us to share our research with you!

As part of Scifund’s Round 3, our research lab has posted our autism intervention project on Rockethub. Rockethub also hosted the first two rounds of Scifund, and there are now dozens of scientists out doing a bunch of exciting research because of the funds they generated through Scifund! Today is the first day of Scifund round 3, and we are excited to be able to share our research with you!

Our research project involves the use of neuroscience methods to test the effectiveness of face processing interventions for adolescents with autism. See more information about our Scifund project here!

We’d like to also give a big thanks to our first Scifund project fueler, Jonathan Birkett!


Research update: Back from Japan!

Dr. Suzy Scherf spent last week in Japan at the International Symposium on Face Perception and Recognition, hosted by the National Institute for Physiological Sciences. On Friday, November 2nd, 2012, Dr. Scherf presented a Keynote lecture titled “Atypical development of face perception in autism.” Dr. Scherf’s talk focused on the findings of the autism research being conducted by our lab, including some preliminary findings from our ongoing autism intervention project!


Idiom interventions for kids with autism

For my (Elisabeth Whyte) master’s project in 2009, as part of Dr. Keith Nelson’s lab at Penn State, I worked with a local community-based social skills program for kids with autism. In the intervention program, we taught 11 children idiom phrases such as “it’s raining cats and dogs” or “raise the roof”. We used interactive worksheets and stories containing the idiom to highlight the meaning (“Raining cats and dogs” means that it is raining really hard outside. “Raise the roof” means that you are cheering loudly). In the study, we found that children were able to remember the idiom phrases that they were taught when we tested them an average of two weeks after the end of the intervention.

Here is an example of the worksheet we used in my master’s thesis for teaching idioms to kids with autism. Prior to being given the worksheets, the idiom’s meaning was discussed during the social group’s circle time (an adult read a paragraph containing the idiom and asked questions relevant to figuring out the idiom’s meaning). Thus, the meaning of the idiom was provided for them (which they had to copy onto their sheets), and then the kids were encouraged to be creative in coming up with their own examples for how to use the idioms during the worksheet activity. Some of the kids came up with really creative examples for their idioms!

The abstract from my master’s thesis is as follows:

  • “Typically developing children learn idioms and other figurative language during childhood and adolescence. However, most children with autism fall behind in their idiom comprehension, and never fully reach adult levels. The current study measured the effectiveness of an idiom intervention for 11 children, age 7 to 12, with autism spectrum disorders. The results of the intervention showed large gains for the idioms included in teaching activities during the two week intervention program. In addition, relationships were found between children’s performance on idiom comprehension tasks and their current theory of mind abilities and vocabulary levels. Autistic children’s comprehension of idioms is likely related to their ability to understand the intentions and feelings of others, as measured by theory of mind tasks. Future interventions to facilitate figurative language skills in children with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome could build on this initial intervention study by increasing the scope of the intervention.”
A research article based on this idiom intervention project (Whyte, Nelson, & Khan, 2011) was accepted for publication by Autism in 2011.

Journal Abstract: Location, Location, Location

Dr. Suzy Scherf and collaborators published an article in 2010 called “Location, location, location: alterations in the functional topography of face- but not object- or place-related cortex in adolescents with autism” in the Journal called Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

In this article, Scherf, Luna, Minshew, and Behrmann (2010) found that adolescents with autism have an atypical pattern of brain activation when viewing pictures of faces, compared to adolescents with typical development.  In addition, while the group of adolescents with typical development showed a lot of consistency in the location of activation related to viewing pictures of faces, the group of adolescents with autism showed much more variability. These findings suggest that adolescence is a particularly vulnerable period of development, particularly for face processing, in autism.

See the article’s full abstract below:

“In autism, impairments in face processing are a relatively recent discovery, but have quickly become a widely accepted aspect of the behavioral profile. Only a handful of studies have investigated potential atypicalities in autism in the development of the neural substrates mediating face processing. High-functioning individuals with autism (HFA) and matched typically developing (TD) controls watched dynamic movie vignettes of faces, common objects, buildings, and scenes of navigation while undergoing an fMRI scan. With these data, we mapped the functional topography of category-selective activation for faces bilaterally in the fusiform gyrus, occipital face area, and posterior superior temporal sulcus. Additionally, we mapped category-selective activation for objects in the lateral occipital area and for places in the parahippocampal place area in the two groups. Our findings do not indicate a generalized disruption in the development of the entire ventral visual pathway in autism. Instead, our results suggest that the functional topography of face-related cortex is selectively disrupted in autism and that this alteration is present in early adolescence. Furthermore, for those HFA adolescents who do exhibit face-selective activation, this activation tends to be located in traditionally object-related regions, which supports the hypothesis that perceptual processing of faces in autism may be more akin to the perceptual processing of common objects in TD individuals.”