Syracuse University Magazine


Natalie Russo

Insights on Autism

Natalie Russo was just 11 years old when she read the book that inspired her devotion to children with developmental disabilities and pointed her toward a career in school psychology. The book, Somebody Else’s Kids, recounts author Torey Hayden’s experiences in the ’70s teaching “the leftovers”—four children whose exceptional learning requirements couldn’t be met in inclusive or special needs classes. “She tells the story of how she works with them and what they are like, and how she helps them grow through the course of the academic year,” says Russo, a psychology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences who recently received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study autism spectrum disorders—a group of developmental disorders that affects one out of every 88 children. “After I read it, I remember going up to my parents and saying, ‘I want to work with these kids for the rest of my life.’ And I never changed my mind.”

Now an expert diagnostician of children with autism who is also a neuroscientist, Russo describes her research as “far afield” from the typical work of a school psychologist. Rather than directly focusing on interventions to help children with learning or behavioral issues, she says her work is “firmly entrenched” in the basic neurosciences. Specifically, she uses electrophysiology, placing electrodes on kids’ heads to measure their brain activity while they do such simple tasks as looking at flashes and listening to beeps. “I look at kids with autism and the way they process and integrate sensory information,” says Russo, a Montreal native who holds a doctoral degree in school/applied child psychology from the city’s McGill University. “So, what does your brain do if you have a sound, versus if you have a sound and a flash? In the typical brain, you get this extra boost of processing when the two things happen at once, and in autism that’s not necessarily the case. I’m trying to understand why that is, and how it impacts everyday life.”

At the heart of Russo’s research is a strength-based approach to data interpretation and research design—a focus she first encountered in the TEACCH special education program during her clinical internship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. TEACCH emphasizes a structured and predictable learning environment and the use of visual learning, which is a strength of many people with autism. “Generally, when you study disability, you are often saying, ‘These kids can’t do this or they can’t do that as well as others,’” says Russo, who completed postdoctoral training with the electrophysiology and multisensory integration experts at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “In the TEACCH approach, you use kids’ strengths to help mitigate their weaknesses, working with parents to teach them how children with autism view the world so they can better communicate with their child. I think a lot of parents resonate with the strength-based approach, because they’ve spent years being told what their child can’t do.”

Russo says she is “truly honored” for the opportunity afforded by the NIH grant to better understand autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and the ways individuals with an ASD experience the world. “My hopes are that we can shed some positive light on autism and the things that people with autism can do,” she says. “I hope my research will be beneficial to the kids and families who have been so kind as to share their time with us.”     —Amy Speach

Photo by Steve Sartori