Dr. Amy Vaughan Van Hecke

    Dr. Amy Vaughan Van Hecke
    Assistant professor of psychology, director of Marquette Autism Clinic
    Marquette University

    Amy Vaughan Van Hecke, assistant professor of psychology at Marquette University and director of the Marquette Autism Clinic has taken a scientific approach to a program focused on social intervention among adolescent teens diagnosed with Autism.

    “Autism is a lifelong diagnosis, but a lot of the social intervention programs and research only exists at the younger age levels,” Vaughan Van Hecke said. “When children with Autism are young they don’t have the social intuitive awareness to know they are interacting differently than their peers do. It’s when those children grow to be teen and young adults that their social isolation becomes more apparent and it becomes even harder to interact with their peers, obtain employment, or live on their own.”

    The 14-week program helps the teens to understand and experience different social settings and situations. According to Vaughan Van Hecke, the program eliminates the fear and confusion and teaches social interactions like how to approach a group of people, how to leave a voicemail or interact at social gatherings and parties. Marquette is the first clinic offering the program to study the neurological changes that occur in the participant’s brains.

    According to Vaughan Van Hecke, studies on the functionality of the brain indicate that the left side of the brain will be more active if the person is “happy, well-adjusted and outgoing.”

    More than 100 teenagers have participated in the program since the project started in the fall of 2010. And initial results have shown that significant changes have occurred in the parietal-temporal lobe, which is related to social behaviors, and in the frontal lobe, the “executive,” decision-making part of the brain.

    “We’ve shown that kids who have gone through our program appear to show a dominate shift in activity on the left side of their brain,” Vaughan Van Hecke said. “It’s really very exciting. Their social well-being and even overall happiness appears to be more active and there’s less negative behavior and more adaptive behavior after these kids go through the program.”

    Vaughan Van Hecke was nominated by Andrew Brodzeller at Marquette University.

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