November 6, 2000
Lee looks into the mysterious face of autism
By Diane Blanks
People with severe cases of the enigmatic developmental disability known
as autism often appear to be locked away within themselves, unable to
communicate effectively or have typical social interaction with others,
even with their families.
For most of us, a great deal of social connection takes place on the
very fundamental level of facial expressions: answering a smile from another
person with one of our own or being aware that someone is upset because
he is frowning. People with autism often lack the ability to make these
vital first connections with others.
Individuals with autism often have such significant difficulties
in navigating social situations that they are socially distant from family
and friends, said Douglas Lee, assistant professor of psychiatry
and behavioral science. They may not understand others actions,
they may not know how to react to others in social contexts, or they may
not know how to engage others.
Symptoms of classical autism include impaired social interaction, problems
with verbal and nonverbal communication, and unusual or severely limited
activities and interests. Autism is the fourth most common developmental
disability, occurring in one out of every 1,000 births, with symptoms
usually appearing during the first three years of life.
Though the cause of autism is unknown, it is believed to be a neurodevelopmental
disorder. Autism is a lifelong condition with no cure, but early intervention
and/or medication can frequently modify undesirable behaviors.
Through a three-year award totaling $279,000 from Wyeth-Ayerst Pharmaceuticals,
Lee is studyingthe unique problems autistic people have in social communication.
Facial expressions are perhaps the most powerful, basic and universal
forms of nonverbal communication, Lee said. But individuals
with autism seem to have difficulty appreciating and understanding facial
expressions. We are looking to understand and elucidate what areas of
faceemotion processing may be contributing to the social difficulties
of individuals with autism.
Autism really is a phenomenon that runs a spectrum from very mild
to severe, Lee continued, but the challenge that people with
autism have in socially relating is one that they all have in common.
It is hoped that, through understanding why people with autism have problems
with this most basic human interaction, better treatments and interventions
can be developed which can help them relate and connect to others.
Lee is working with fellow researchers Clinton Kilts and Gail McGee, professor and associate professor, respectively, of psychiatry and behavioral science.