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New Dartmouth Assistant Professor Focuses on Autism

  • Jana Kieboam, of White River Junction, Vt., tries out the sensory-friendly tepee at the Lebanon Farmers Market in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2018. The tepee, which was set up by the Special Needs Support Center, is designed to give autistic people a break from the sounds and activity of the market. Kieboam said the tepee provides a relaxing break and felt autistic people would appreciate it. The SNSC has taken the tepee several other places including the Sharon Rest Area, where many people made use of it. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Caroline Robertson stands in the Rivermill Commercial Center in Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018. Robertson is new to the faculty at Dartmouth and will be setting up an autism research lab. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Caroline Robertson demonstrates a virtual reality headset that she uses with people with autism to determine what they value through eye movement in her office in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018. Robertson is working on setting up a new lab which will be the first and only Dartmouth lab focusing on people with autism. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, September 09, 2018

Hanover — Chicago native Caroline Robertson, a new assistant professor at Dartmouth College, is beginning her time on campus by emulating a famous Illinois politician’s strategy of knocking on doors to find out what people need.

When former President Barack Obama first came to Chicago, Robertson said, he began by asking: “What needs to be organized?”

“We’re in that phase here,” she said in an interview last week in her sparsely decorated new office in Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

Through her door knocking and email sending, Robertson aims to bring people together in a Dartmouth Autism Research Initiative both to help advance her research, which primarily focuses on sensory perception in people with autism, and to build awareness about the condition, which is often misunderstood.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that one in 59 children has autism. The condition, also known as autism spectrum disorder, can result in a range of social, communication and behavioral challenges, as well as particular abilities in certain areas such as noticing small details in the environment. The particular traits associated with autism manifest differently in each person, Robertson said.

Many questions about autism remain to be answered, from causes (not vaccines, but sometimes genetics) to how to diagnose the condition earlier in a child’s development, and how behaviors relate to differences in the brain, Robertson said.

In order to answer such questions, Robertson and her team aim to follow a strategy in the field, which is “nothing about me without me,” meaning that researchers ought to involve those affected by the condition in their work as much as possible.

“I feel excited to be starting afresh here at Dartmouth because it feels like an opportunity to build a program that has that vision,” she said.

Robertson, who holds a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology and philosophy from Columbia University and a doctorate from the University of Cambridge, comes to Dartmouth following a postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

Enthusiasm About the Research

Her arrival in the Upper Valley, which occurred in July, and her plans for the initiative have been met with enthusiasm from some others in the community.

Laura Perez, the director of the Lebanon-based Special Needs Support Center, said she hopes that a collaboration with Robertson and others will help to provide affected families with more opportunities to attend community events and to help improve understanding among community members about the condition and various associated behaviors.

“I’m so thrilled that Caroline and her team have joined this community (and) we’re able to work together,” Perez said in a phone interview.

Because those with autism often have some sensory sensitivities to things such as noise and crowds, the Special Needs Support Center this summer has begun bringing a tepee equipped with a bean bag, toys and noise-canceling earphones to the Lebanon Farmers Market. This mobile sensory station, which has a door that closes, provides people with a break from the often busy market on Colburn Park, Perez said.

Also this summer, Perez worked with Opera North to make it possible for people with differences such as autism to enjoy a performance of “Singers & Swingers,” which included opera, Broadway music and circus acts. To make the performance accessible, Perez sat down with Opera North officials to talk “about what accessibility really meant.”

In addition to having an accessible bathroom and parking, Perez said minimizing loud noises and allowing people with disabilities such as autism to sit in front seats can make a performance more comforting. After that conversation, Perez said Opera North “did all of the accommodations that families said they wanted.”

That experience made Perez feel that there is a willingness in the Upper Valley to make things like theatrical performances accessible, but that people might not know how to do so. She hopes to collaborate with Robertson and others to develop a tool kit to help other organizations improve accessibility.

Lebanon parent Lisa Green said she hopes research like Robertson’s will help uncover what may cause autism symptoms or traits, and help to improve treatments. Green’s 27-year-old son Patrick has autism and a seizure disorder, which is found in about 20 percent of people with autism, according to Dr. Jennifer McLaren, a D-H psychiatrist who specializes in autism.

In addition to some of the challenges associated with autism, such as speech delays, Green is also well aware of some of the benefits of these brain differences. For example, Green said that Patrick was very quickly able to locate the queen bee among the drones when he took a look at the bees in a display at the Montshire Museum in Norwich.

“Things like that he’s really gifted in,” she said.

Some of his friends have “super-abilities” in areas such as math and art, she said. But, she said, “who knows” where these differences come from.

“It’s a puzzle,” she said.

Members of a Dartmouth-Hitchcock multidisciplinary team devoted to caring for people with autism saw 900 patients last year, McLaren said.

Information for Parents

McLaren, who also serves as medical director for New Hampshire’s Bureau of Developmental Services, said she is interested to see what Robertson’s research might reveal about ways to identify autism in very young children. Earlier diagnoses result in better outcomes, she said.

Currently, clinicians’ diagnoses rely on observations of how a child is developing, she said. Children who have autism, but are higher functioning and have language skills, may not be diagnosed until grade school.

In addition to further research, McLaren said she would also like to see more educational programs for families on topics such as school advocacy, sensory issues and managing anxiety.

Such programs might help counteract the misinformation that parents often encounter on the internet, she said.

“Parents come in with lots of questions,” she said.

Jessica Poludin, the director of the Hartford Autism Regional Program, which serves 15 students with autism and other related developmental disabilities who are unable to remain in a mainstream classroom, said the program has an existing relationship with Dartmouth College in which some psychology students come to the program for hands-on experience.

She hopes the new collaboration might include more opportunities for parents of children with autism to interact with their peers.

“Parents are often looking to connect with other parents,” she said.

Like Perez, Poludin said she would like to see more community events such as movies and museum hours available to people with sensory sensitivities. A movie screening, for example, might include having the lights on, and allowing talking and bringing in outside food.

“I do think it’s important that this area location-wise be a little bit more aware and accepting that these individuals are part of our community,” she said. “They want to lead active, fun, healthy lifestyles.”

For her part, Robertson aims to support these community efforts and to recruit participants for her research, which often involves eye tracking using headsets that run a virtual reality program. Such experiments help researchers identify which objects attract people’s attention. Experiments also sometimes involve brain imaging using magnetic resonance imaging.

For a healthy research program, Robertson said she will need a database of 40 to 60 people willing to participate in experiments once or twice a year.

The work can be fun, Robertson said, and volunteers are often compensated for their time.

“It can be a nice way for someone to help the science and also make a little bit of money,” she said.

Robertson’s arrival comes on the heels of the departures of three former professors in Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences after internal investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct on their part led Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Elizabeth Smith to recommend their tenure be revoked and that all three be terminated. A separate investigation by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office is ongoing.

Robertson’s decision to come to Dartmouth was not influenced by these allegations or departures, she said. She took the job before the investigations were announced last fall and has been on maternity leave, caring for her now eight-month-old daughter, Esmei.

The allegations — which included an accusation by a group of undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctorate scholars published last November in The Dartmouth who said the conduct “created a hostile academic environment in which sexual harassment is normalized” — are “concerning and scary,” Robertson said.

But she said that the best way to create change is for female scientists to become professors and train the next generation.

“As far as I can tell it’s a good time to be coming into a department that is making a fresh start,” she said.

Robertson will give a public lecture, “Autism from the Perspective of Neuroscience,” on Oct. 18 at 5:30 p.m. in Moore Hall on the Dartmouth campus.

To volunteer to participate in Robertson’s research or for more information about the initiative visit dartmouthautismresearch.com, or contact Robertson at autismresearch@dartmouth.edu or 603-646-9129.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.