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A kid sits with a book on his lap in a chair while a man crouches to the boy's right and Terisa Gabrielsen crouches on the boy's left
Photo courtesy of Bradley Slade

It is a challenging proposition for any­one: Lie flat on your back, helmet cover­ing half of your face, in a tight-quartered MRI capsule that would make even the nonclaustrophobe jittery. Then try not to move for 45 minutes. For children and adolescents with autism and low verbal and cognitive performance (LVCP), that proposition has been nearly impossible without sedation—until now.

Using a range of behavioral support procedures to minimize fear and anxi­ety, a team of interdisciplinary research­ers from BYU and the University of Utah managed to complete structural and functional MRI scans of 37 children and adolescents with autism, including 17 with less-developed language skills and an average IQ of 54.

Other researchers have done struc­tural MRIs of individuals with LVCP pop­ulations under sedation, but this group, spearheaded by autism pro and McKay School assistant professor of school psy­chology Terisa Gabrielsen, wanted to find a way to watch their brains while they were awake and working. So they created a video explaining the step-by­-step fMRI process that children could watch at home multiple times, and they provided families with audio files that would help children prepare for the sounds they would hear in the machine.

When children arrived for their scans, the researchers let them push but­tons on the machine so they could see it move up and down. And once the scans began, added Gabrielsen, "if they were getting antsy, we reassured them. We could hold their hand. We could remind them to stop moving. We were focused on giving them more than what they might need to be successful in the scanner.

The team found that within the LVCP group, a number of the brain's networks "just weren't working in sync as much," said Gabrielsen. "And we also found decreased activity between the left and right hemispheres.

The team would like to do follow-up scans with the same children and get larger samples of each of the groups: "Getting younger kids-kids with even less language—would be helpful and solidify the findings and tell us more," said Gabrielsen. "Thanks to the participants in this study, we know how to do it now.