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Simon Fraser University (SFU) researchers have teamed up across disciplines to better understand and support children, youth and adults on the autism spectrum.

SFU Education Professor Elina Birmingham is the director of the Autism Education Lab (AEL). She works closely with SFU Psychology Professor and clinical psychologist Grace Iarocci who leads the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Lab (ADDL). They are part of a growing group of scholars committed to incorporating the voices of autistic individuals into the research process. Along with their respective teams, they are dedicated to maximizing the quality of life for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and developmental disabilities through education and community outreach.

Birmingham and Iarocci recently authored the study, Action coordination during a real-world task: Evidence from children with and without autism spectrum disorder. Their work focused on joint action coordination in children with and without autism.

Joint action refers to any type of social interaction where two or more people coordinate their actions to change their environment. It is what has made humans successful as a species, and requires individuals to glean social cues, find common ground and anticipate others’ actions.

Autism is characterized in part by difficulties in social understanding, involving  both communication and social-emotional reciprocity. This would mean that autistic children would perform differently than non-autistic children in tasks that required joint action, something that has never been explicitly studied—until now.

We talked with Birmingham and Iarocci about their work.

Your study revealed some interesting findings. Please describe what you discovered. 

We were excited to find new evidence of differences in action coordination (a component of joint action) associated with autism. Our study adds to a growing literature that aims to study social and communicative processes as they unfold in real-time social interactions rather than in contrived computerized laboratory tasks.

We had participants move tables through a maze, in three conditions: individually (Child-Only); collaboratively with a peer (Child-Child) or collaboratively with an adult (Child-Adult). Participants had to move the table from point A to B without dropping small figurines from the table surface, which gave them an incentive to keep the table as stable as possible while moving it. We had three measures of joint action. 

First, we used a novel relative tabletop movement measure of the extent to which the table wobbled while being moved. This was measured by an iPhone strapped to the underside of the table, and was calculated by software developed by University of British Columbia Professor and Distinguished University Scholar Jim Enns. For this measure, less table wobble (or more table stability) indicates better action coordination between dyads. 

Second, we measured the time to complete the task (allowing us to examine speed-accuracy trade-offs, and, when combined with the relative movement measure, the time measure gave us a sense for the overall efficiency of action coordination). Third, we used a stepping synchrony measure coded from video footage of pairs. For this third measure, more synchrony between the footsteps of dyads indicates better action coordination. 

We found that in the Child-Child condition, relative to the typically developing (TD) group the autism group demonstrated poorer performance in all three of the measures of action coordination: the table wobbled more, the pairs were slower to complete the task and were less likely to spontaneously synchronize their steps. Furthermore, children with autism showed less of a cooperation benefit, which we defined as improved table stability when moving the tables together versus individually. That is, autistic children moved the table with more stability than TD children in the Child-Only condition but with less stability than TD children in the Child-Child condition. 

These findings suggest the presence of implicit differences in the way children coordinate bodies and minds in a relational context. They also suggest that poorer action coordination in the autism group was unlikely to be due to gross motor differences. If these were responsible, we would have expected to find lower table stability in the autism group in the Child-Only condition.

Our findings dovetail with existing data on atypical timing mechanisms in children with autism showing that autistic children are less likely to spontaneously synchronize their movements (e.g., Marsh et al. 2013) and facial expressions (Zampella et al., 2020) with others. These differences in “perceiving and responding to the rhythms of the world… (Marsh et al. 2013 p.1)” likely have downstream effects on social communicative development.

Regarding joint action, the study points to the important role of parents, caregivers and educators in supporting children with autism. Please elaborate.

A key finding was that there were no differences in performance in any of the above measures between the ASD and TD group during the Child-Adult condition. This finding emphasizes that joint action coordination is influenced by one’s partner’s contribution, and suggests that the adult implicitly scaffolded the task, compensating for autism-specific differences. To our knowledge, this is the first study that compared joint action between Child-Child and Child-Adult dyads, and thus it may contextualize previous findings from studies in which joint action was measured only in Child-Adult pairs. These findings suggest that rather than looking at autism through a “deficit” lens we need to be taking into account the contextual and relational variables that impact behavior.

This study also suggests that the potential to learn and improve on joint action (and likely other social skills) increases when an adult or more socially mature child is the social interaction partner. Perhaps joint action could be targeted for intervention similar to how imitation and joint attention are targeted in parent coaching models of intervention. These joint action interventions could be parent- or teacher-mediated, but could involve children engaging with an older sibling, same-aged peer or caregiver in collaborative activities. This might help children with autism to implicitly seek social information and coordinate behavior and action patterns with others, which may improve social and communicative development.

How important is interdisiplinary collaboration in better understanding and supporting children, youth and adults on the autism spectrum?

Interdisciplinary collaboration is crucial to advancing our knowledge on autism. Autism is a complex condition that affects all aspects of development including physical, social and emotional aspects. In addition, we need to consider the context of development and social influences. A child’s development occurs within a family and societal context—therefore we need to factor in family well-being, school environment and social policy on autism. Many experts need to be involved who study a range of issues from cell to society.

What is next in this line of research and what are you currently working on?

We have developed an international collaboration with The National Autism Research Center of Israel. The centre contains longitudinal information from over a thousand children with autism and their families. Together with our research database in the ADDL at SFU we will work on developing new technologies, algorithms and protocols for objective quantification of specific autism characteristics. This includes collaborative research with faculty in Psychology, Education, Biomedical Engineering, Linguistics and Computer Science utilizing techniques such as eye tracking, movement tracking, speech recordings and analysis of facial expressions in videos. This will enable us to assess new technologies in populations of children who speak different languages and come from different cultures and environments.

We are also really excited about our Kids Brain Health Network-funded project to help children with autism who have decreased tolerance of sound. Decreased sound tolerance significantly impacts the daily lives of children and their ability to learn and interact with others, sometimes so severely that they are completely unable to participate in educational and social settings. However, existing strategies either remove children from the classroom or school activity, or limit their participation by blocking out sounds indiscriminately. Existing technical solutions also fail to address the individualized nature of sound sensitivity. In collaboration with Professor Siamak Arzanpour and SFU’s Mechatronic Systems Engineering, we are developing a personalized, wearable device to selectively filter undesired sounds specific to each individual. Our approach uses artificial intelligence to detect sounds that are problematic for the end-user, and then masks or removes the problematic sound from the signal.  To learn more, visit: The AEL Sound Sensitivity Project.

Elina Birmingham’s research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council  and by the Kids Brain Health Network. 

Grace Iarocci’s research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.