Dr. Molly Losh is a developmental psychologist and professor at Northwestern University who passionately researches autism and neurodevelopmental disabilities. In her profile, she shares valuable advice for future autism researchers and important insights on the genetics behind autism.
Tell us about yourself.
I am a developmental psychologist and professor at Northwestern University, where I teach and do research focused on autism. I got interested in autism research early on when I was an undergraduate, taking a developmental psychology class that spent time discussing how development differs in children with different neurodevelopmental conditions. In particular, the unique cognitive profile of autism raised important questions about the nature of cognition and how it relates to other complex human traits like language and emotion. I went on to study the social communicative profile of autism in my doctoral work at UC Berkeley, where I studied how narrative language is learned by children with autism. Narrative is an important way of making sense of our experiences and sharing them others in meaningful ways, and this is a skill that is challenging for even very high functioning individuals with autism who have no trouble with grammatical aspects of language. So it’s really a barrier of effective communication for these individuals. My work from early on has tried to understand the basis of the narrative difficulties in autism, and how they relate to other complex traits and abilities.
What was your journey to the Northwestern University Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Laboratory (NDL)? And what research do you do?
Following on above – I got really interested in the biological and genetic basis of autism toward the end of my doctoral work and so went on to study autism from a family genetic perspective in my postdoctoral work at UNC Chapel Hill. In that work, I did some training in human genetics, and worked with mentors to study how subtle traits might run in families and be used to study the underlying biology and genetic transmission of autism. As part of this new direction of work I also started studying other genetically based conditions that were associated with autism, and Fragile X syndrome in particular. In this work, we are studying how the traits of autism might be present in other conditions and be linked to specific candidate genes.
I came to Northwestern in 2010 and have continued this line of work, studying developmental profiles of unique abilities that run in families and represent the expression of autism risk genes. We are also collaborating with psycholinguists to develop novel tools for studying language and cognition in autism. For example, using eye tracking to understand how eye movement patterns during language tasks can give insights into underlying perceptual processes that influence language and social behaviors. We’re also really interested in developing tools for measuring responses to intervention, which the field really needs.
What personally draws you to researching autism?
Autism is so complex and affects individuals and families in important ways. The communication difficulties experienced in autism in particular, can have reverberating impacts on individuals’ lives. I’ve always been strongly motivated to understand the causes of autism in general and the communication aspects of autism in particular, in order to inform intervention efforts, but also as a way of understanding the biological basis of such complex human abilities.
The more we are learning about the genetics of autism, the clearer it has become that features of autism exist in the population as a whole and can give us tremendous insights into the biological basis of complex human traits such as language and social cognition, or how we think about the social world around us.
What eye-opening or promising developments have you found in the field of autism research? Anything exciting while conducting family studies that involve individuals with autism and their parents?
Related to above – that the genetics of autism is tremendously complex with hundreds of contributing genes that also show variation in the general population and contribute to traits that we all show. In our studies, for example, we have shown that relatives of individuals with autism, who themselves are in no way impaired, commonly show subtle language styles, social traits, and unique neuropsychological profiles that are believed to result from the genes involved in autism. These profiles are evident in all of us to different degrees – some people are more or less sociable, or more or less attuned to different social signals. The prospect that these complex abilities may be influenced by genes involved in autism I find to be a tremendously important insight into the roots and origins of complex human behavior that has come from autism research.
This development has helped us to think more seriously and clearly about autism as well. So, for instance, a related and also very important development has been the broader recognition of the unique strengths in autism and initiatives to develop programs to build on those strengths to improve individuals’ lives and integration into their communities, including independent living. Our NIH-funded projects that are currently underway have potential to provide important findings that can help to tailor and optimize such training programs to focus on the unique strengths in autism, and we’re really excited to work towards translating those findings into action that can increase services and support for individuals with autism.
You mentor graduate students in both Northwestern’s Communications Sciences and Disorders program and Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine’s Clinical Psychology program. What advice do you give these students, or anyone interested in this important area of study?
I do work with terrific students in both programs. My advice for students interested in graduate work in the autism field is to get research experience early on – first, to make sure you enjoy research. It is a tremendously rewarding career if research is something you enjoy, but it’s not for everyone and better to know early on than once you are in the middle of a very challenging graduate program. Second, research experience early on is essential for honing your interests and developing relevant experience to establish a competitive application. It is always impressive to see a student who has worked for several years in a lab as an undergraduate, or after graduating, and spent the time to really develop their interests.
What's next for research on neurodevelopmental disabilities? Are there any neglected or underestimated areas of study that you hope to pursue further?
One major area of neglect in the autism field is the study of adulthood. Autism is a lifelong condition, and yet most research and services focus on early childhood. As individuals age they have changing needs for services and support, and may also show changes in language, cognitive and behavioral profiles. So little is known about this period of development, though. This is an area we are actively studying in our research with adults.