Collaborative Scholarship - CHS Professors Cross Disciplines to Address Autism
Drs. Jason Boyle, Jeffrey Eggleston and Vannesa Mueller are crossing disciplinary boundaries and identifying opportunities for translational research projects aimed at improving quality of life for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their families.
The professors have very different academic and professional backgrounds – Boyle’s PhD is in Kinesiology, Eggleston’s is in Interdisciplinary Health Sciences, and Mueller’s is in Speech and Hearing Science. Mueller, who directs the Speech Language Pathology Program, is also a licensed speech language pathologist who first worked with children with ASD in a clinical position at the University of Iowa Hospital. Boyle and Eggleston both followed a trajectory that brought them through their respective post-secondary degrees as research assistants to their current positions as tenure-track professors and directors of two research laboratories in the College of Health Sciences.
Despite their differences, the team is working hard to identify what they have in common. Mueller and Eggleston share similar stories in what initially drew them to want to work in this area – an initial exposure with the children and families that brought to light the lack of research in how to improve their day to day living.
Boyle expresses that it was “by luck” that he ended up at UTEP with a specific skill set in upper extremity coordination, and then found both an area of research and group of professors who could benefit from his expertise. One colleague in particular, Dr. Rhonda Manning, clinical professor for the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Program, enticed him to begin working in this area. Boyle collaborates with her often and also teaches several courses in the DPT Program.
As the director of the Virtual Reality and Motor Control Laboratory, he is also leading several studies that look at upper extremity coordination with children on the highly functioning end of the spectrum, and is interested in finding out about their “internal models of action” for movement, i.e. whether or not they understand how they fit into this world.
“We’re interested in isolating the sensory systems that build motor programs – so we’re going to look at vision only, proprioceptive haptic feedback from the body only, and then maybe certain scenarios with the two systems – to identify where these kids flourish in movement and where they don’t. The systems are all designed to work together, but in kids with ASD, maybe one system toes the line a little harder than another one, or maybe not. We just don’t know at this point.”
Eggleston explained the main difference between the work in Boyle’s lab and his team’s work at the Stanley Fulton Biomechanics and Motor Behavior Laboratory, as well as how the two intersect. “Jason’s group is studying upper-extremity, fine motor skills, whereas the lower-extremity movements we study are very foundational - how are we walking, how are we going to place the foot the next time we step, how are we climbing stairs. But if we know that there are some issues with these foundational movements, we can really start to get at how this disorder manifests in terms of motor impairment. That’s where we complement each other very well. We’re really encapsulating the whole system and how it functions,” he said.
Eggleston and Boyle currently co-direct the dissertation project for Patrick Cereceres, a student in the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences PhD Program who is preparing for his proposal defense. Over the next year, all of the work completed with Cereceres will be managed by the two professors. Boyle says that he’d like to continue working with Eggleston on projects with PhD students and, down the road, apply for funding for large-scale multi-year projects.
Boyle is also excited about the future direction of the work he is doing with Manning and two DPT capstone groups who actively participate in his lab. “The students are trying to create the initial bridge away from the theoretical world and move it into the applied, clinical realm. They’ll take everything we’ve done in the last several years in the Motor Control Lab and run a series of physical assessments that PTs typically do, and look at where do we see this predictive relationship of these measures that we’re doing in the lab to here’s what it looks like in a clinic, and then we’re going to decide where can we go from there – how can we modify and advance,” he said. Ultimately, the group hopes to be able to develop a set of interventions that can be shared with practitioners and even the families of children with ASD.
Mueller explained that movement is also what initially drew her to learn more about Eggleston’s work. Mueller’s research centers on augmentative and alternative communication, and her work with children with ASD is in sign language training. The two are now collaborating on a project that is looking at an educational intervention (two weeks of sign language training with Mueller and her students) and how that impacts movement in children with ASD versus typically developing children. The children’s upper extremity movements will be tested before and after the intervention by Eggleston’s group in the Stanley Fulton lab. The two are unsure about what the data will tell them – there are only a few research publications with a similar set-up, and children with ASD are very different, with symptoms that manifest differently.
Ultimately, all three professors hope the data pulled from their various studies will help eliminate the current subjectivity surrounding a diagnosis of ASD, and can be used to better the lives of the children and their families. Mueller also mentioned the possibility of a future project that she hopes will resolve the issue of late diagnoses of ASD.
“Kids gesture and use their bodies to communicate before they can talk. So if there’s some way to quantify or identify different ways of moving in these little ones before the onset of speech typically happens, Autism could potentially be identified really early and reliably,” she added.