Increasing understanding of autism leads to clinically relevant solutions
The incidence of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is on the rise, with recent estimates suggesting that 1:68 children are affected. A greater understanding of ASD can lead to improvements in educational, transitional, and work opportunities that enhance the quality of life for individuals with autism, many of whom struggle to work, despite their clear capacity to do so. One specific area that has been cause for frustration among individuals with ASD and their parents relates to sensory processing atypicalities that include, for example, an oversensitivity to sound, or an aversion to eye contact and touch. Dr. Natalie Russo, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Syracuse University, studies the relationship between clinical descriptions, sensory processing, and the mechanisms underlying their development in children with ASD. By highlighting the strengths of children with autism, like their superior ability relative to typically developing individuals (TD) to detect sensory information in vision, audition, and touch, it is her hope, to improve outcomes of individuals on the autism spectrum by increasing our understanding of the autism phenotype. In so doing, Dr. Russo explains that “instead of jamming a square peg into a round hole,” she says, “we can make everyone productive and effective members of society.”
Despite treatment advances, 80% of adults with autism are unemployed and the annual cost of autism in the US is estimated at 126 billion, making this disorder an important concern. Through the study of sensory processing atypicalities, the most frequently endorsed and yet, most poorly understood symptoms of autism, Dr. Russo brings together clinical, behavioral, psychophysical, and neurophysiological methods that allow for the examination of individual differences. Central to her lab’s work is a focus on strengths, not weaknesses. With the firm belief that individuals with ASD add to the beauty of our diverse communities, Dr. Russo applies neuroscience based techniques to ask clinically relevant questions. Therefore, her work is able to inform science, clinical practice, and even family communication to make the world a more accepting and accessible place for people with ASD.
Current research includes:
Differences between TD and ASD Individuals: Dr. Natalie Russo characterizes the nature and extent of sensory processing differences between TD and ASD individuals. By creating accurate methods for testing ASD individual’s abilities to sense the environment, she and her team are able to better understand sensory processing.
Impaired Multisensory Integration: Dr. Russo hopes to understand the mechanisms underlying impaired multisensory integration in ASD by examining its relationship to attention and enhanced perception using measurements of behavior and non-invasive measurements of brain neurophysiology.
Behavior and Phenotype: It is important to illuminate how clinical presentation of sensory symptoms relate to behavioral and neurophysiological responses. In so doing, Dr. Russo can help determine whether behavioral and neurophysiological indicators of sensory processing can predict autistic symptomatology to potentially serve as a diagnostic biomarker, and also whether these indicators map onto meaningful subgroups of individuals with ASD that could benefit from specific, individualized, targeted interventions.
When Dr. Natalie Russo was eleven, she read a book written by a teacher working with children with special needs. Within the book, there was a story about a boy who had autism; after reading about him, Dr. Russo knew that in her future she wanted to work with children on the autism spectrum. Despite her passion, Dr. Russo never actually met an individual with autism until graduate school. She describes that in many ways, people with autism “were hidden.” At the time, statistics reported that only 1 in 10,000 children were affected and because of the social taboo, it was rare that people with autism were integrated into society.
It was not until graduate school that Dr. Russo realized her passion for research. Working under her mentor at McGill University, she was able to study the way people with autism sensed and understood the world around them. Her continued studies lead to her complete her master’s thesis that focused on how children with autism were able to shift their attention flexibly. By looking at relative strengths and weaknesses in children with autism, Dr. Russo is helping to understand the complexities of trying to measure individuals that are on the spectrum.
Soon after completing her thesis, Dr. Russo was recruited by a school for children with autism to develop a research program. While at the school, Dr. Russo learned the importance of creatively approaching problems to reach solutions that will benefit both children and their families. In particular, she describes testing children on swing sets rather than classrooms and the excitement her team had over the success of these new processes. In this way, Dr. Russo learned that even the “nonverbal kids had a lot to say.” While completing her Ph.D., Dr. Russo was awarded the opportunity to study at the TEACCH Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The TEACCH Center takes a strength based approach to autism to help families “understand how to communicate with individuals with autism” to improve their outcomes. Here her passion for research and the children and families she was serving came together holistically.
When the time came for her doctoral thesis, Dr. Russo knew she wanted to conduct electrophysiology research, which she had no prior experience with. Her advisor, noting her determination and passion, connected her with a neuroscientist. This neuroscientist handed her hundreds of pages of basic articles explaining the physics of the brain, and said, “get through these papers and then we can talk about whether you want to do this kind of work.” Despite her limited knowledge in mathematics and physics, and even her past experiences having failed physics twice beforehand, Dr. Russo went home and studied hard. She came back a week later, ready to take on the challenge of learning a new tool in order to shed light upon the different ways in which TD and ASD children process information.
After completing her Ph.D., Dr. Russo accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine where she continued to integrate her passion for people with autism, diagnostics, and electrophysiology. She explains that the most rewarding part of her work then and as she has continued to conduct research has been to create opportunities for children with ASD.
Aside from her research in her free time, Dr. Natalie Russo stays busy with her growing family. When not caring for her baby, she spends time playing with her pug, Chester.
2013-2018: National Institutes of Mental Health, Role: P.I. (RO1: MH101536-01.BRAINS initiative): The neurophysiology of sensory processing and multisensory integration among persons with an autism spectrum disorder
Hill Environmental Medicine Collaboration
2012-2014: Hill Environmental medicine collaboration, Role: P.I. Neurophysiological mechanisms of temporal processing of rapidly presented visual information among typically developing children, children with an autism spectrum disorder and children with Velo-Cardio-Facial Syndrome.