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Student researches autism

Adam Llorens | Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that autism affects one in every 110 American-born children. Senior Nicole Shea hopes through her research, she will be able to enhance the lives of those affected both socially and academically.

“I am investigating how parental autonomy support plays out in the life of children with autism,” Shea said. “My thesis is looking to see if parental autonomy support is related to academic and social outcomes for children with autism spectrum disorders.”

Shea said her interest in the subject sparked during her sophomore year when she began working in the Laboratory for Understanding Neurodevelopment (F.U.N. Lab), which is directed by Dr. Joshua Diehl, assistant professor of Psychology at Notre Dame.

“During my junior year I took a class called ‘Motivation and Learning’ under [associate professor of psychology] Julie Turner,” Shea said. “The idea for my thesis came out of these experiences, as I combined ideas from Dr. Turner’s class with what I was learning in Dr. Diehl’s research lab.”

Shea’s research reached a deeper level last summer when she worked on an autism study with Dr. Diehl.

“For the study, I worked with four children with autism doing applied behavior analysis therapy, and we incorporated an interactive robot into their therapy,” Shea said. “The robot acted [as] co-therapists during therapy, and [my study] lasted for eight weeks, including 12 sessions of therapy for each child.”

Shea said her experience at Notre Dame helped strengthen her interest in the topic.

“The opportunities to get involved with research as an undergraduate psychology major at Notre Dame have been wonderful,” she said. “I have been able to become very involved and take on a leadership role in Dr. Diehl’s lab throughout my time here.”