Research Programs

Research at the Autism Center is focused in two main categories:

  • Studies of Repetitive Behaviors in Autism
  • Studies of Motor Behavior in autism spectrum disorders

Studies of Repetitive Behaviors in Autism

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) demonstrate a variety of ritualized and repetitive behaviors. Among these behaviors, patterns of insistence on sameness (IS) can be particularly challenging. IS refers to difficulties making transitions or responding to changes in routines.

Some people with an ASD demonstrate high levels of IS, and significant distress when having to deal with changes in their environment. We are studying the alterations in cognitive and brain systems associated with IS in people with ASD with a particular focus on brain mechanisms of behavioral flexibility.

Cognitive Tasks

We designed cognitive tests to test hypotheses about specific neurobehavioral deficits associated with IS.

Eye Movement Tasks

We have worked for over a decade establishing distinct patterns of oculomotor deficits in ASD (see this article from the Archives of General Psychiatry). We developed new tasks to study sensorimotor and cognitive impairments we believe may be associated with IS.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)

The state-of-the-art fMRI facilities at UT Southwestern provide tools to delineate neurochemical, neuroanatomic, and neurophysiological alterations that contribute to behavioral features of ASD. We developed specific behavioral tasks to study regional differences in brain function associated with IS.

Studies of Motor Behavior in ASD

Motor problems are common in individuals with ASD, and have been noted in both manual and ocular motor systems. We are investigating specific brain circuits underlying these problems. Clinical observation and neuropsychological testing point to significant impairments in motor skill development in ASD. Neurophysiological measures of motor system function are needed to clarify the specific nature of these deficits and the causes of these impairments.

Eye Movement Tasks

Studies of pursuit and saccadic eye movements have demonstrated a range of sensorimotor alterations in autism. Studies of antisaccades, memory-guided saccades, and predictive saccades have identified alterations in neocortical systems supporting contextually guided and internally generated action planning. 

Manual Motor Tasks

We use neurophysiological measurements to measure motor strength, speed, and accuracy of manual actions. Specific tasks have been developed to measure aspects of motor functioning that are believed to be difficult for some people with ASD focusing primarily on the use of visual feedback to optimize motor control.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)

Functional neuroimaging studies of brain systems supporting eye movement and manual control are being used to determine the alterations in brain circuitry that contribute to motor difficulties in ASD.