Justin Gardner, PsyD
Last updated November 2021
An unfortunate misconception is that because children with Autism have numerous social and cognitive challenges they have severe impairments that are impervious to many treatment interventions. However, novel research suggests that they may not be as impaired as people may think, and that more robust treatment outcomes are possible.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a clinical diagnosis delineating a cluster of symptoms associated with poor social communication and restricted behavioral patterns. However, ASD is defined as a "spectrum" - meaning that people with Autism span a wide array of abilities and disabilities, from very low functioning to very high functioning. Currently, ASD tends to be formally diagnosed via the use of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), a clinician-administered test that assesses a person's ability to adequately perform in social situations and maintain appropriate social relationships. Emerging research suggests that ASD may be more complex than previously thought, and that a more robust assessment of neuropsychological functioning may be needed to not only diagnose it, but to inform more effective treatment regimens.
Study after study has shown that individuals with ASD tend to have a somewhat predictable pattern of neuropsychological functioning, with slight fluctuations in functioning across the spectrum of deficits. For example, research shows that those with ASD tend to have particular difficulties in flexibly utilizing environmental feedback to efficiently adapt. As well, individuals with ASD struggle with sustained attention, distractibility, and verbal skills, among other cognitive and social difficulties.
For my doctoral dissertation, I developed a novel model of neuropsychological functioning that informs the diagnostic process of ASD as well as provides unparalleled information regarding the most effective and efficient treatment route for those with Autism.
Utilizing principles from systems biology, I utilized a computational modeling approach to build an integrated model of neuropsychological functioning in those with and those without ASD. Results suggested that contrary to what we may assume, the underlying neuropsychological mechanisms which manifests as ASD is not actually as discrepant from non-ASD mechanisms. This suggests that not only are the deficits in even low functioning Autism not as severe as assumed, they may actually be more easily treatable than one might think.
In fact, the trick to developing a more efficient treatment regimen for ASD is timing. Instead of attempting to treat all symptoms simultaneously, research suggests that it is more effective to treat the most neuropsychologically-centralized deficit (perhaps inattention or motor skills) before even attempting ABA therapy, social skills training, or psychotherapy.
It is for this reason that our providers at Beljan Psychological Services strive to develop more accurate diagnostic methods. As well, our aim is to provide you with more comprehensive and individualized treatment recommendations tailored to help you find the most appropriate services and to more maximally remediate the difficulties your child is experiencing.
Dr. Gardner is a postdoctoral fellow at Beljan Psychological Services. He specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of pediatric neuropsychological disorders. Dr. Gardner has presented his research on computational modeling and machine learning approaches for diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder at many local, state, national and internal conferences.