Research design

De La Salle psychology graduate student is the first author of a research study on autism

Researchers from CHOP’s Center for Autism Research studied the level of talkativeness of young people with autism compared to their neurotypical peers when talking with partners of varying levels of engagement.

A doctoral student at La Salle University working with the Center for Autism Research (CAR) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) is the author of several studies aimed at better understanding the responses of people with autism in social interactions.

Meredith Cola, 25, from Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, is a sophomore in La Salle’s doctoral psychology program. She decided to pursue her studies in psychology at La Salle because of what the program had to offer.

“Part of the reason I chose La Salle was the opportunity to complement the child-focused concentration within the Psy.D. program,” she said. “I was also interested by the opportunity to undergo training within the faculty of the Psy.D. program which had a particular emphasis on working with children, both from the point of view of clinical training and research. La Salle in Philadelphia has made it a great place to access day school training opportunities related to autism assessment and intervention.

Cola’s work as a research assistant at CAR began after she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania. She was drawn to research because it combined clinical psychology with the opportunity to work with autistic people and their families.

“It was a beautiful intersection of those two interests,” she said.

In a recently published study (autism research, 2022), Cola and fellow researchers found that during experimentally manipulated conversations, children and adolescents with autism did not adjust their level of talkativeness to match calmer social partners, unlike their neurotypical peers. This could lead to less successful social interactions for young people with autism, the study concludes.

The study included 98 participants between the ages of seven and 17 (48 who were diagnosed with autism and 50 who were neurotypical). Participants engaged in three-minute conversations with two new social partners. The first partner acted interested in the conversation and talked more while the second partner acted bored and talked less.

As a group, the neurotypical participants successfully adapted to their conversation partner’s behavior by being more talkative with the interested acting person and less talkative with the bored acting person. Meanwhile, the autistic group remained talkative in both contexts and did not adapt their communicative behaviors to reflect their social partners.

Cola said this was studied through transcripts of the conversations and looking at word counts produced. And although the study results showed that as a group, autistic participants continued to talk more with less talkative partners than neurotypical participants, some outliers were observed. Notably, girls with autism were disproportionately represented in the most talkative subgroup.

The findings suggest that learning to adjust one’s own level of talkativeness in response to social cues could be a growth opportunity for verbally fluent people with autism and a potential outcome measure for social communication interventions, according to the study.

Cola said this study is part of ongoing research at CAR focused on understanding and supporting the social achievement of people with autism, particularly in the areas of speech and language.

“Part of the reason I chose La Salle was the opportunity to complement the child-focused concentration within the Psy.D. program. I was also interested in the opportunity to train with the faculty of the Psy.D. program that had a particular focus on working with children, both from a clinical training and research perspective.Finally, La Salle’s location in Philadelphia made it an ideal place to access clerkship training opportunities related to autism assessment and interventions.

– Meredith Cola, ’25

Although this study began before Cola’s time at La Salle, she said her enrollment at La Salle opened up more opportunities for collaboration, especially with Sharon Lee Armstrong, Ph.D., associate professor and director of Psy.D. Research and Dissertations, Associate Faculty Member at the Center for Cognitive Science at Rutgers University, Adjunct Investigator at Moss Rehabilitation Hospital and Research Consultant at the Selective Mutism Research Institute; and Julia Parish-Morris, Ph.D., lead study author, CAR scientist, faculty member of CHOP’s Department of Biomedical and Health Informatics, and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Cola continues to work with Dr. Armstrong and Dr. Parish-Morris on his thesis project.

“Cola came to La Salle and her thesis project with substantial knowledge about autism and clinical assessment with autistic people,” Armstrong said. “Having previously worked in a university research lab, she also brought a sophistication of statistical design and research as well as experience using a computerized text analysis tool to study the use of words. Cola’s thesis project will build on his previous research and allow him to expand the understanding of sex differences in communication in the autistic population.

As Cola progresses in her studies and moves to a new location after graduation, she hopes to continue working in areas of clinical psychology that will allow her to study topics related to neurodiverse individuals.

“I am really interested in continuing to work with people with neurodevelopmental differences. One area of ​​clinical and research interest that is particularly important to me is working to better understand and support girls and women with autism, as they have traditionally been underrepresented in research,” Cola said.

Eventually, she hopes to work as a clinician at a university or teaching hospital, providing high quality assessment and intervention services to people with autism.

—Meg Ryan