University a Growing Center for Autism Research and Intervention

Ashley Hillier with The Network
Assoc. Prof. Ashleigh Hillier runs a monthly social event for high-functioning young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

By Katharine Webster

With as many as one in 68 children being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UMass Lowell faculty are leading the way in research and education to help people on the spectrum.

Seven members of the psychology faculty are engaged in autism research that spans childhood to adulthood, mild to severe disability, cultural and income differences, and practical interventions to possible causes of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). For example, Assoc. Prof. Doreen Arcus, a developmental psychologist, is examining whether the quantity of suspected neurological toxins emitted as air pollution affects the rate of ASD diagnoses. Initial results strongly suggest that it does.

“We’re swimming in these chemical-rich environments, so we’re looking at chemical exposure,” Arcus says. “What we’ve found is that in the top quarter of polluting states, there’s a 40 percent increase in the odds of children being diagnosed with autism, compared to the least-polluting states.”

Assoc. Prof. Ashleigh Hillier, whose research mostly involves high-functioning teens and young adults, is heading up a new, interdisciplinary autism research and education group that includes faculty in psychology, economics, computer science, nursing, clinical lab and nutritional sciences, chemical engineering, education and music. And the Department of Psychology, which already offers an online graduate certificate in behavioral intervention in autism and a master’s in autism studies, plans to add a research track to their master’s program.

The university is celebrating National Autism Awareness Month with talks by UMass Medical School researcher Carol Curtin, Hillier and Tyler Lagasse, a student with ASD who recently co-wrote a book with his mother: “What Do You Say? Autism with Character.”  

University Crossing lit up in blue for Autism Awareness Month
University Crossing is lit up in blue in April for National Autism Awareness Month.

Students Apply Classroom Learning to Autism Research

Both undergraduate and graduate students have plenty of research opportunities. Emmanuel Abraham, a senior psychology major, asked Arcus if he could help with the next phase of her environmental research: comparing autism diagnosis rates in the most-polluted and least-polluted counties in each state, based on how many millions of pounds of suspected neurotoxins are emitted from smokestacks each year.

“I thought it would be fun to do this research while getting real-world experience,” says Abraham, who hopes to stay with the project through completion. “I’m actually getting to use what I’ve learned in my classes and see its real-world application.”

The existing master’s in autism studies prepares candidates to become Board Certified Behavior Analysts – which involves 750 to 1,500 hours at a supervised placement, working directly with people with ASD in the public schools or at a community agency. But some students also do original research.

Master’s candidate Devon White has a younger brother on the autism spectrum. That – and an undergraduate seminar and research with Assoc. Prof. Richard Serna – inspired her to design a study looking at whether preschoolers with ASD develop better social skills by interacting with an older, neurologically typical sibling. 

“Social skills are the hardest things to teach,” White says. “People often think children with autism are not socially interested or socially motivated, but they are. They just have different ways of showing it.”

Grad student Devon White at The Network
Graduate student Devon White shares a photo at a social event for high-functioning young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

A recent M.S. graduate, Joseph Veneziano, conducted research that found people with ASD – who often can’t make or hold eye contact – performed better in job interviews when they focused on the edge of the interviewer’s face instead of completely off the face. He will present his work at the national conference of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Some of the research we do is very technical and lab-based,” Arcus says. “But it has real implications for the way people live their lives.”

Undergraduates – who can specialize in developmental disabilities or minor in disability studies – also can do research or service learning directly with people on the autism spectrum, including fellow students. Hillier, who runs a support group for students with ASD, also works with campus Disability Services on a mentoring program that pairs students registered with ASD with neuro-typical peers. 

Research suggests people at the high-functioning end of the spectrum are more prone to anxiety, stress and depression, in part because they’re more aware of being rejected by their peers, Hillier says. The mentoring program is designed to decrease the students’ sense of isolation and help them navigate college life more successfully.

UMass Lowell supports such programs because administrators recognize the valuable contributions such students make to the campus and the community. Many are brilliant in their chosen areas of study, Hillier says, and are considered very desirable by employers.

Interested in helping with research on autism spectrum disorders at UMass Lowell? Contact for information on studies currently seeking participants.