How do autistic kids’ brains make sense of sounds?

We’re looking for kids with autism as well as typically developing kids to take part in our research over the next few weeks.

In a recent study, we found that autistic kids had unusual brain responses to certain sounds. We’re now conducting a follow-up study to see how consistent these findings are across different kids – and whether they relate to everyday problems with sensitivity to sounds.

As in our original study, we are using a technique known as magnetoencephalography or MEG for short. MEG works by measuring the tiny magnetic signals produced by neurons in the brain. It will tell us which parts of the kids’ brains are responding, how quickly, and how sensitive they are to subtle changes in the sounds they are hearing.

It involves absolutely no physical risks. Kids get to go in a “space rocket”, watch a movie of their choice – and get paid!

If you’d like your child to take part, please ring Shu Yau (02 9850 1582) or email shu.yau@mq.edu.au

Who can take part in the study?

We are currently recruiting children aged 5-16 years, who live in the Sydney area:

  1. Children on the autism spectrum (i.e., children with a diagnosis of autism, autism spectrum disorder, Asperger syndrome, or PDD-NOS). Our only criterion is that kids can complete the different tasks.
  2. Typically developing children (i.e., non-autistic children with no language or communication difficulties and epilepsy). These children are very important because they provide an objective age-matched comparison.

However, not all children will be able to take part. We have to exclude children who have epilepsy because their brain responses are difficult to interpret. We have also found that braces in children’s teeth can interfere with the MEG recording – so if your child has braces that can’t be removed then they won’t be able to take part in this study.

We also ask you to read the rest of the information carefully before deciding whether your child will be able to complete the study.

What would happen if my child took part in this research?

You and your child would be invited to the KIT-Macquarie Brain Research laboratory. We’d begin by introducing you to the researchers, showing you the lab, and demonstrating to your child what the study involves. There’s no pressure to continue, but if you and your child were happy to proceed, we would go ahead with testing (some families prefer to come back a second day and that’s fine).

Before the MEG recording, your child would be fitted with a cap similar to a swimming cap. This contains a number of sensors that allow us to work out the precise location of their head in the MEG helmet. We would then use a special digital pen to trace over your child’s head. This helps us to work out where their brain activity is coming from.

Once they were ready, we would ask your child to lie down on a bed in the MEG room. We would get them to put on some special earphones that are similar to earplugs and then roll them into place so their head is in the MEG helmet. The study itself involves listening to a series of sounds played through the earphones. They don’t have to do anything, just lie as still as possible for about half an hour. To keep them entertained, we have a range of DVDs for them to watch. If you wanted, you could stay in the MEG room with your child. We also have cameras in the room so we can see inside, and a microphone so we can communicate with you and your child throughout the whole process. MEG recording takes 30-45minutes.

As well as the MEG recording, we’d also ask your child to complete some tests to give us a record of his/her social and communication skills and hearing ability. These are verbal tests or computer games and would take around 1.5 hours. These could be done on the same visit as the MEG recording or at a follow-up visit.

While your child is doing these tests, we’d give you a brief questionnaire concerning your child’s social and communication skills, and another questionnaire asking about their hearing and sensory profile.

For children with Autism, without an Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) diagnosis or recent psychological report, there is an option to have that done. The ADOS is a play-based test that takes approximately 1 hour outside of the testing session and will only be administered for research purposes to confirm the Autism diagnosis.

Do we get paid for taking part?

Yes. We pay $40 for each visit to the university to take part in the research.

Where and when would the research take place?

The study will take place at a time that suits you, and can be split into two or more sessions if needed. The MEG system is at the KIT-Macquarie Brain Research laboratory at 299 Lane Cove Road, close to Macquarie Park station.

Are there any risks involved in this research?

There are absolutely no physical risks involved in the study. If your child became tired or anxious, testing would stop immediately. Unlike other brain imaging techniques, MEG is silent, doesn’t involve things being stuck to the child’s head (except for the swimming cap), and you would be able to stay with your child the entire time.

What happens to the information recorded?

Your child’s scores on the various tests would be coded and stored on a computer with password protection. They would be given an ID number so that nobody outside the research project knows their real name. The information we record during this study will be treated in strictest confidence and we certainly wouldn’t pass on any information about your child to anyone outside the research project without your written permission.

How will I find out about the outcomes of the research?

We will send you a summary of the research project and its outcomes. We will also send you a summary of your child’s scores on the different tests.

What happens if I change my mind?

You are free to withdraw your child from the research study at any time. You don’t have to give a reason and you’ll still get paid.

Who is conducting the research?

The study is led by Dr Jon Brock at the Department of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University. His collaborators include Dr Yatin Mahajan, Associate Professor Blake Johnson and his PhD student, Shu Yau. It is part of a larger research program funded by the Australian Research Council.

Would we be asked to take part in other studies?

If you’d like to get involved in other research projects, we can send you information about future studies. But there is absolutely no obligation for you to take part in these.

I’m still interested. What do I do now?

If having got this far, you’re still interested in your child taking part, please phone Shu Yau (PhD student) at 02 9850 1582 or email shu.yau@mq.edu.au

The ethical aspects of this study have been approved by the Macquarie University Ethics Review Committee (Human Research). If you have any complaints or reservations about any ethical aspect of your participation in this research, you may contact the Committee through the Research Ethics Officer (telephone [02] 9850 6848, fax [02] 9850 8799, email: ethics.secretariat@vc.mq.edu.au). Any complaint you make will be treated in confidence and investigated, and you will be informed of the outcome.

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