In the summer 2014, I was fortunate to receive the Autism Science Foundation Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship to work with Dr. Sara Jane Webb at the University of Washington. During my summer research, I was able to complete my honors thesis: A Study of Twins of Individuals with Autism: Heritability of Pragmatic Language Ability in Autism Spectrum Disorder. I was also involved in two other projects in the lab: one focusing on brain activity and genetics in girls with autism, and the other to identify a potential biomarker for treatment response in adults with ASD.
For my ASF research and honors thesis, I studied language in twins with and without autism and found that twins who both had ASD had more difficulty grammar and pronunciation compared to twin pairs where both did not have ASD. If one of the twins had ASD, their language ability was not as impaired, but still not to the levels seen in those without autism. Also, the better social communication skill in the twin with ASD predicted better language ability in his or her twin non ASD twin. These results show that the genetic determinants of language may be shared by social communication. It opens up new areas of study to look at social communication skills as a target of interventions for language. I presented these data (A Study of Siblings of Individuals with ASD: Comparison of Pragmatic Language Ability) as first author at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Salt Lake City in May 2015. I was also awarded, the University of Washington (UW) Undergraduate Research Conference Travel Award and the UW Psychology Honors Travel Award.
In June, I graduated with a B.S. in Psychology with Honors. I am currently working with Dr. Wendy Stone, also at the University of Washington. I will be primarily working on research projects that focus on early detection and intervention for children with autism. I hope to pursue a Ph.D. in Child Clinical Psychology in order to continue research on intervention for social communication skills in children with autism, and potentially incorporating EEG to look at the effectiveness of the intervention.
The ASF Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship made a huge impact on my career. It opened the doorways to additional opportunities in research, and has advanced my professional goals. The presentation, the travel award, and my direction in autism research would not have been possible at all without the support from ASF and the mentorship by Dr. Webb. I am very excited to contribute what I have learned from this experience. Thank you, ASF, for supporting my research, and thank you, Dr. Webb, for your sincere and continuous mentorship!