Project title: “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): from the progress of neuroscience to practical applications” 
Funded Programme/Action: one research fellowship at the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Science (director’s decree no. 86 of 25 November 2016)
Host institution: ODFLab
Scientific coordinator: Prof. Paola Venuti
Academic discipline/Technological area: Clinical psychology
Keywords: ASD, emotions, biological motion, social interaction, intervention methodologies, non-verbal communication, emotion recognition

Project objectives: 

Autism spectrum disorders are a set of diseases of the neural development. Affected people have difficulties in communicating and interacting and tend to perform a limited amount of activities in a repetitive way (DSM 5, APA 2013).

Even for ASD patients with a high level of intelligence, the main difficulty is often the inability to socialize. In everyday life we are constantly immersed in a social environment and we must therefore be able to understand others and respond adequately.

Emotional signals are crucial for intersubjectivity, and a growing number of studies point to the fact that body language is as important as facial expressions to convey emotions. According to many studies, people with ASD are unable to interpret body language effectively, and their difficulties in understanding social interactions may be associated with an impaired perception of biological motion, especially when it conveys emotional information. Biological motion includes looks, facial expression and body language.

These studies are telling us that it is important to help these patients understand body language and facial expressions to improve their interpersonal skills. Our objective is to prepare educational materials and tools to stimulate their interpersonal abilities. Apart from offering structured support in psychological and educational settings, we aim at identifying intervention strategies in intensive and structured interaction contexts that facilitate interplay among ASD children, their peers, and adults.

The ODFLab will play a major role in this, together with the “Terapia in Vacanza” project, a summer camp for children with ASD aged between 4 and 8, with a variety of intensive and multi-dimensional activities. The summer camp gives campers the opportunity to practice their skills extensively in a green setting, and is also intended to give parents some support. The participants are surrounded by nature and ASD patients also meet with normally developing children. Studies have shown that intensive and multi-dimensional activities are highly effective.

The project’s purpose is to improve the interpretation of nonverbal communication, in general, and of emotions, in particular, in people with ASD, through targeted actions that point to develop their ability to recognize body language, including facial expressions, looks and speech. The participants will work on multiple skills: communication, playing, social interaction, mimicking, cognition, motion and individual abilities. The actions will take inspiration from the psychological and educational methodologies designed by the ODFLab for patients with ASD, keeping in mind the need to offer an intense interpersonal experience.

They will start from a functional diagnosis that identifies the ASD patient’s individual skills and difficulties, and incorporate behavioural strategies and tailored development exercises. An important feature of the project is the participation of normally developing children, therefore the psychological and educational actions will include exercises aimed at increasing the ability to interpret body and facial expressions associated with emotions through intensive and structured peer interaction. The quality of social interactions will be measured through observation and behavioural analysis that examine intelligence and cognitive development, motor coordination and eye movement, attention span, ability to do, language learning abilities, memory and ability to adapt socially. We also ask parents to please take a questionnaire and answer some questions.

The project’s final objective is to improve significantly the quality of life or people with ASD and their caregivers through better social interaction and understanding of others.

Thanks to taxpayers’ donations through 5x1000 we were able to fund one research fellowship position for Dr. Noemi Mazzoni at the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Science of the University of Trento.
 
Further information: fundraising [at] unitn.it