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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.


Back to Emory Report Nov. 6, 2000