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Identifying Autism Early: Adrienne Tierney

Adrienne Tierney

This article was first published in April 2009 when Adrienne Tierney was a doctoral candidate at the Ed School.

Autism, a developmental disorder, has long been a subject of controversy in science, medicine, and education, and has garnered much publicity. "It's our responsibility as researchers to get to the bottom of the controversy," says doctoral candidate Adrienne Tierney, Ed.M.'06, Ed.D.'11. "I think there are a lot of misconceptions around autism. Instead of just seeing this as a dysfunction, we are starting to understand that there are strengths and weaknesses. Autistic children's cognitive process is very different and we want to pursue this as [a question of] what goes wrong, not just a focus on dysfunction."

Tierney's dissertation research examines early identifiers of autism and the relationship between neural and cognitive processes over the course of development, particularly in children with autism. To find answers, she is currently working on the Infant Sibling Project in collaboration with Harvard Medical School Professor Charles Nelson, research director in the Division of Developmental Medicine, and Boston University's Helen Tager-Flusberg at Children's Hospital Boston. The project involves studying two groups of infants -- high-risk and low-risk for autism. Due to a genetic component of autism, an infant is considered high-risk when he or she has an older sibling with the disorder, Tierney explains.

Using an electroencephalography (EEG) signal, Tierney measures the infants' brain activity. The various components of the signal are thought to be related to different ways the brain processes information and, in turn, these brain processes are related to cognitive activity, she says. Tierney wants to see whether there are differences between the high- and low-risk groups and if those differences predict a child's diagnosis of autism. "Right now diagnosis doesn't happen until 3 or 4 years old...," Tierney says. "We need to improve the tools to identify autism."

The lack of early identification is just one problem in a larger disconnect between neuroscience and practice. Tierney experienced this gap firsthand when her brother, who has Tourette's Syndrome, struggled in school because teachers often did not understand his disorder. "We were at a loss to find people to help with that," Tierney says.

After earning her bachelor's degree, Tierney went on to research Parkinson's Disease, teach high school biology abroad, and eventually earn a master's in neuroscience. However, her desire to close the gap between neuroscience and education led her to the Ed School. "Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) spoke to me as I was trying to answer questions, and [I] didn't feel there were other programs trying to do the same thing," she says.

Tierney did not know much about autism initially. She connected with Nelson during an MBE class and expressed interest in working with him. The work Tierney is currently doing with the high-density EEG, says Nelson, could make great strides in the early diagnosis and intervention in cases of autism. "Current efforts at intervening early are hampered by the inability to diagnose autism reliably in children under 24-26 months old," he says. "If this project is successful, future efforts will be directed at utilizing this tool to screen large numbers of infants, including those without a family history."

While Tierney's research is still in the early stages, she says they are already seeing differences between the groups. The question remains, though, whether those differences will predict changes in cognitive function. "It's never ending research because one question leads to so many more," she says.

Ultimately, Tierney hopes her research will provide information for early identification and intervention of autistic children, which can set the path for more "typical development." "If you don't identify early, then developmental processes go awry, but we can help mold these children on a more functional path," Tierney says.

Tierney's research may also help ease some of the ongoing controversies and misconceptions about autism. "People see it as so awful, or a crisis, or the worse thing you want for a child. I think it is difficult and parents suffer every day, but [they can] take a lot of solace with researchers who recognize that there are strengths the child can work with...," she says. "[Public controversy] creates a lot of stress for the parents, unnecessarily. As researchers, if we can find out what is really going on, then we can put the arguments to rest."