UNO professor and grad student study early signs of autism

Photo courtesy of Assistant Professor Shari DeVeney

Charlotte Reilly

A plaque on UNO Assistant Professor Shari DeVeney’s desk reads, “Doubts kill more dreams than failure ever does.”

DeVeney, who works in the College of Education, encourages students to participate in research, even if they feel intimidated by it.

She is currently working with UNO grad student Hannah Lopez to study whether or not early communicative signs of autism exist in infants at-risk. To be considered at-risk, infants have to have an older sibling diagnosed with autism or be born prematurely with low birth weight.

DeVeney and Lopez became interested in the topic when they observed that many early signs of autism are present during the child’s first year. They want to help parents see the signs so they can learn about autism and use available services at an earlier age.

“The average age fore diagnosis is about 50-52 months (about four years),” DeVeney said. “…Signs may be present much earlier! I’m a big fan of early intervention and it seems so tragic to me that these children and their families aren’t able to fully tap in to services available from the very beginning without a diagnosis.  It felt like there was something there we could help with.”

One of the main parts of the research was studying eye gaze fixation behaviors.

“Early gaze fixation behavior is thought to be predictive of communication and language skills,” DeVeney said. “Consequently, identifying differences in early eye gaze behaviors could lead to early intervention services tailored specifically on counteracting early social withdrawal behaviors. Though few studies have compared eye gaze patterns of these two high-risk infant groups, knowledge of differences between these two groups could inform early interventionists’ service provision approach.”

Lopez’s research is part of DeVeney’s larger research project, Early Diagnostic Signs of

Autism, which she is working on with Creighton University School of Pharmacy and Health Professions Assistant Professor Anastasia Kyvelidou. They started recruiting participants in December 2017, and stopped looking for participants for Lopez’s thesis in June 2018. DeVeney’s study is continuing until the study reaches the target participant numbers. Lopez received the Graduate Research and Creative Activity Grant (GRACA) for her research. Lopez said participating in research and having a supportive mentor has positively impacted her UNO experience.

“… I have gained knowledge and skills that anybody who hasn’t done research would miss out on,” Lopez said. “…I am a better student and will be a better clinician because of these experiences.”

Lopez is presenting her thesis at the Nebraska Speech-Language-Hearing Association state convention Sept. 27. She is presenting at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association national convention in Boston on Nov. 17.

Anyone interested in participating in DeVeney’s research can call 402-554-2993 or email  Participants are compensating and data collection takes place at the participant’s homes.