Blythe Corbett’s insights may be unique among researchers developing new interventions for children with autism spectrum disorders – at the M.I.N.D. Institute or elsewhere. Corbett’s Social Emotional NeuroScience Endocrinology (SENSE) lab focuses chiefly on analysis of the behavioral and biological effects of the stress hormone cortisol on children with autism. But her work is informed by the eclectic professional experience of someone with a background in autism diagnosis, brain analysis, behavioral intervention – and acting.

“Results from my studies are revealing associations between a child’s behavior, biological profile and brain functioning before, during and after social interactions,” said Corbett, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “The ultimate hope is that these results will give us a better understanding of autism in order to develop individualized biological and behavioral treatments.”

In her quest for enhanced assessment and treatment of the social-emotional capabilities of children with autism, Corbett has focused on responses of the stress hormone cortisol during various potentially stressStress Response Systemful settings, including playground interactions. With playtime periods discreetly videotaped for later moment-by-moment documentation of their behavior, a child with autism and a typically developing child are teamed with a “confederate” child who works with the researchers. They’re given various play opportunities, with their cortisol levels checked before and afterwards to assess their level of stress.

“Although there is a great deal of variability in stress levels among children with autism, many of our subjects seem to find playground interactions stressful–even kids who appear to be enjoying themselves,” explains Corbett.

Her cortisol studies have also revealed that children with autism often have elevated cortisol levels toward the end of the day, in contrast to typically developing children. These studies of
cortisol rhythms and responses raise many questions: Do those with autism have heightened sensory sensitivity, leading to heightened stress? Do they have a genetic predisposition to stress? What are the characteristics of the children who show high versus low levels of stress?

“Research is ongoing in my lab to answer these questions,” Corbett said. “It’s clear that understanding the biology beyond the behaviors can help lead directly to new, more effective interventions for our kids with autism, a priority for so many of us in this field.”

Corbett has drawn on her acting background to found a new all-volunteer theatrical intervention program, the SENSE Theatre, which teams typically developing children with child actors with autism to perform musicals and plays for live audiences. Acting provides a natural environment for children with developmental disabilities to better understand emotional expression, learn
scripts for typical conversations, have a safe place for repeating those scripts and for developing friendships with peers their own age – and feel the sense of pride that comes from receiving applause from an appreciative audience.

The project also helps develop the concept of video modeling, a tool that allows children with autism learn the behaviors of typically developing children by seeing them on video and repeating their behaviors. SENSE Theatre productions utilize youth actors as expert models who, as part of the rehearsal process, perform the roles in which the children with autism have been cast. In addition to working with the child during the rehearsals, these typically developing actors are videotaped in rehearsal performing the roles, and the children with autism are encouraged to study those videos from home. For performances, the typically developing actors are cast in different roles, giving them the chance to shine in front of audiences, too.

For more information about Blythe Corbett's SENSE Theater, visit their website at:

Reprinted with permission from UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute "M.I.N.D. Matters"

Wednesday: Investigating the Many Types of Autism

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