Doctoral candidate Laura Edwards spends her days in a laboratory. However, the Boston Children’s Hospital’s Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience isn’t a laboratory filled with pipettes or test tubes but with colorful toys, animal murals, and brain imaging “hats” where Edwards researches how children on the autism spectrum are able to imitate in learning situations.
“Autism is an urgent problem,” she says. “There is a push to have more research that is relevant to children’s daily lives.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 88 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder — a development disorder that often affects social abilities — in the United States.
Though Edwards had no personal connection to autism, she became fascinated with researching the disorder due to the great number of questions that exist, specifically how to better equip teachers and schools with interventions. “Teaching and learning is a social activity,” she says. “How can we facilitate this in children who find social interactions difficult?”
Edwards hopes to find some insight into that question by studying how autistic children neurologically process imitation in early childhood. “Imitation is an important foundational learning mechanism for children,” she says. “Many current autism interventions involve imitation, so it’s an important skill for children with autism to have.”
Previous research has shown that children with autism show differences in how they imitate other people’s actions, suggesting that they may have trouble understanding the intentions of others. Part of learning in the classroom involves social interactions and imitating what is seen, and reading social cues, she explains. With those skills missing or operating differently, it challenges the way that children on the spectrum are able to learn in schools.
By looking deeper into the brain processing of imitation, Edwards hopes to understand the nature of the differences in brain activity between children with autism, their unaffected siblings who are at high risk of developing autism, and children who are typically developing, while they perform tasks related to imitation.
She is interested in what these different brain patterns — such as those associated with theory of mind, or the ability to understand what another person is thinking — can tell us about what information children with autism are really learning when they imitate.
With the help of an Autism Speaks Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship, she plans to study 100 families with children on the autism spectrum over the next two years. Using non-invasive brain imaging techniques and gaze patterns, she’ll gain insight into how children with autism may attend to and perceive others’ actions, and how this may be different from typically developing children.
The power of understanding how autistic children and their unaffected siblings, as well as typically developing children, process imitation could lead to the improvement and development of promising educational interventions — a goal Edwards has long aspired to.
As a Yale University undergraduate biology major, who took courses in teacher preparation as electives, she spent a lot of time in a laboratory working with molecules, but instead thinking about working with young children and opening a preschool. Though initially she thought she might become a doctor, she started to see education-based research as an area on which to work because it felt more “immediately applicable to meaningfully changing people’s lives.”
While Edwards admits that to date a lot of her work is still lab-focused, she hopes to balance this in the future with practice as well. “This is a good place to start, but not quite where I hope to end up,” she says, noting that she hopes to find ways for neuroscience research and educational practice to work together to solve educational problems. And, those results just might help everyone.
“I think that the work I’m doing is not just about interventions for children with autism,” she says. “By understanding and facilitating better social interactions in classrooms, the hope is this will improve the education experience for children across the board.”