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Episode Summary

In this episode of all about kids, Zach talks with Dominic Trevisan, a psychologist who focuses on autistic research. Dominic shares how he became interested in autistic research and explains how the autistic mind processes information differently.

Zach and Dominic discuss how the changes from COVID may impact children and people with autism, as well as the importance of facial expressions in determining the emotions of others. Dominic also explains his current research involving interoceptive signals and how they are linked to emotions.

Episode Notes

Dominic’s Interest in Autism Research

  • Dominic has always been interested in the development of social skills, and autistic research focuses on this topic
    • (4:15) – “I had this interest in how children develop social skills, because social skills are something that’s so integral and so important to almost every aspect of our lives, and yet, for the most part, they’re not something we’re explicitly taught, it’s something we sort of learning through experience.”
    • (4:55) – “Most people with autism have average or above-average intelligence, and yet they don’t seem to develop these social and emotional competencies in the same way that most of us do.”
  • There is still a need for support for individuals with autism.

The Autistic Brain Processes Differently

  • People with autism seem to think in rule-based patterns
    • (6:33) – “Many people with autism think in these really sort of rule-based patterns, which can allow them to really even thrive in settings like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, because competencies in those areas are very rule-based and pattern-specific.”
  • The unpredictable nature of the social world makes it harder for the autistic mind to process the information
    • (7:00) – “The social world is so unpredictable and non-rule based and requires us to transfer what we learn from prior experiences to slightly different experiences in other social settings.”
  • People with autism seem to have more difficulty processing emotions
    • (8:44) – “People with autism may have more difficulty perceiving emotions from their environment, from other people’s emotions and other forms of non-verbal communication.”
    • (9:26) – “Later in life, people with autism are much more likely than the general population to experience difficulties with things like depression and anxiety mood disorders.”

The Increasingly Digital Age, Due to COVID, has Benefits and Disadvantages

  • Face to face interaction is often burdensome for people with autism
  • Electronic communication and social interaction may be easier for autistic individuals
    • (13:36) – “I think there’s certainly a possibility that some people with autism may be more likely to thrive in that type of work environment.”
  • The increasingly electronic shift could harm children’s’ development of social competencies
    • (14:09) – “I think there’s certainly a worry that kids with or without autism may be losing these important developmental experiences if there’s learning in an online environment and not interacting with other kids in a school.”
  • Wearing masks during research has made it difficult to maintain consistency in the research
    • (18:51) – “I think any research that gets published from research in the pandemic era needs to have an asterisk on it.”

Facial Expressions Are Indications of the Emotions People are Experiencing

  • Some research on facial expression analysis and emotions is carried out by showing children different videos and then using software to analyze which emotions were present, based on facial expressions
    • (21:27) – “Regardless of whether they had autism or not, the kids who had more difficulty understanding their own emotions, were much less non-verbally expressive, or facially expressive in response to the videos.”
  • Facial mimicry is another area of research that helps understand facial expressions and emotions
    • (22:04) – “There are some findings in the literature that show that people with autism are less accurate, and less likely to automatically mimic other people’s facial expressions or facial expression stimuli.”
    • (22:17) – “Kids with autism are less likely to use facial expressions to modulate or facilitate social interactions on the playground or other real-world settings and may be more likely to use them in socially awkward or inappropriate ways that don’t seem to match the social context.”

Interoception is the ability to identify and accurately interpret internal bodily sensations

  • Interoceptive signals are relevant to emotions
    • (26:23) – “Experiencing emotions through the body may be a critical aspect in how we sort of identifying what emotions we’re experiencing and why, and what to do about them.”
  • People with autism have difficulty interpreting internal bodily signals
  • It’s possible to disregard internal bodily signals, as well as over-analyze them
    • (30:36) – “Being able to identify and recognizing internal body signals is adaptive up to a point, and then if it becomes too much of the focus of your attention, and you’re becoming worried about signals that are potentially benign, then you’re creating unnecessary anxiety and stress for yourself.”
  • It’s not clear what aspect of Interoception is difficult for individuals with autism
    • (31:57) – “Interoception from a mechanistic standpoint has to do with how our peripheral nervous system, what’s going on in the body, interacts and communicates with our central nervous system.”
    • (36:54) – “Whether it’s from external sensory information or internal sensory information, there’s this idea that the autistic brain may not be filtering sensory information as well as most of us do, and that creates this form of sensory overload.”

It Is a Misconception that People with Autism Don’t Care About Other People or Making Friends

  • Autistic individuals want things that are hard to achieve, because of the barriers that come with their disability
    • (40:40) – “For the most part, my experience, and even talking with people with autism, is that they do want more friends, they do want to be in a relationship, they do want to move out of their parents’ home, they do want to succeed in a job interview so that they can become employed and support themselves. But, because they struggle with these social interactions and understanding the social world, their disability prevents them from achieving those things that, for the most part, I think they want.”


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More on Dominic Trevisan

Dominic has a background in psychology and received his master’s and Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. While he was there, he gained experience with autism research and while he studies it now with a different perspective, he’s continued to pursue that area of research. Dominic is now a post-doctoral fellow in the Child’s Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine. Dominic’s research focus is the identification, expression, and regulation of emotions by people on the autism spectrum, as well as the perception of other’s emotions.  His study here is more clinical and he works in a clinical neuroscience lab.