Students learn about the symptoms associated with autism, explore the nature of 'normal' behavior, and can design a quasi-experiment to test a hypothesis about autism.
A Failure to Communicate
Description of Activity
“A Failure to Communicate” engages students with a case study that presents a constellation of symptoms associated with autism. Students follow DJ’s family as they find out what’s wrong with him and deal with the possibility that DJ’s brother may also be on the autistic spectrum. Students first [typically] easily identify basic facial expressions using Dissect-A-Face. Then they navigate Facial Expressions, where they are challenged to identify some difficult to discern facial expressions. Difficulties interpreting basic facial expressions are a common experience for individuals with autism. The Hidden Face of Autism follows with an interview of Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and an opportunity to design a quasi-experiment to test a hypothesis about autism. Although doing Part 1 first is recommended, all parts may be done independently of one another.
APA National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula
Standard Area IA: Introduction and Research Methods
CONTENT STANDARD IA-3: Research strategies used by psychologists to explore behavior and mental processes.
CONTENT STANDARD IA-5: Ethical issues in research with human and other animals that are important to psychologists.
Standard Area VA: Psychological Disorders
CONTENT STANDARD VA-1: Characteristics and origins of abnormal behavior
CONTENT STANDARD VA-2: Methods used in exploring abnormal behavior
CONTENT STANDARD VA-3: Major categories of abnormal behavior (autism)
CONTENT STANDARD VA-4: Impact of mental disorders
Standard Area VB: Treatment of Psychological Disorders
CONTENT STANDARD VB-2: Types of practitioners who implement treatment
Learning Goals and Objectives
Students will be able to:
1. describe behaviors they observe
2. analyze DSM IV-TR and ADI diagnostic criteria that support the diagnosis of autism.
3. apply research with respect to twin studies dealing with autism
4. interpret facial expressions
5. empathize with individuals with autism and their families
6. look at genes that have been associated with autism
Assumptions of Prior Knowledge
Students should have studied either introductory biology or introductory psychology at the high school level.
Students often think that:
• autism is invariably linked to mental retardation
• if one twin is autistic the other twin will definitely be autistic
• mothers of autistic children rarely interact with their children
• autism can be cured
• most autistic children have one area of brilliance
• vaccines containing mercury (Thimerosal) cause autism
Implementing the Lesson
Become familiar with, and learn how to navigate through, G2C online (http://www.g2conline.org/education.html).
Parts 1 and 2—1 50-minute class
Part 3—1 50-minute class
Part 4—1 50-minute class
Photocopy: Student Worksheet Part 1: A Failure to Communicate, Student Worksheet Part 2: Like Two Peas in a Pod?, Part 3: Identifying Facial Expressions and Part 4: The Hidden Face of Autism.
Students will be introduced to DJ in Part 1 of the progressive disclosure case study. They will make observations from a video clip of DJ, and also access DSM-IV-TR/ADI criteria for autism. Go over questions to Part 1 before proceeding to the next part. In Part 2, students will analyze data from a research team, then answer questions comparing incidence of autism among monozygotic and dizygotic twins to determine if DJ’s twin John is likely to be on the autistic spectrum. In Part 3, students will characterize simple facial expressions, construct mixed facial expressions using drag and drop features of the tool, and attempt to identify difficult to interpret facial expressions to experience some of the challenges autistic individuals face.
• Create a concept map that includes: autism, diagnosis, monozygotic twins, dizygotic twins, Asperger’s syndrome, DSM-IV-TR, and additional terms of the student’s choosing
• Read and report on the book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon.
• Create a brochure about autism for the general public using information from the g2conline.org website.
• Find examples on the site regarding autism that address the following levels of organization: gene, biochemicals, cells, brain anatomy, cognitive behavior and environment.
Asperger’s syndrome (AS)—an early onset developmental disorder on the autistic spectrum characterized by major difficulties in social interaction, and restricted and unusual patterns of interest and behavior.
Autism or autistic disorder—an early onset developmental disorder characterized by markedly abnormal or impaired development in social interaction and communication, and a markedly restricted repertoire of activity and interests
Autistic spectrum disorder—the name given to the different forms and levels of what had been under the “umbrella” of autism, such as autistic disorder, Rett’s disorder and Asperger’s disorder
Concordance Rate—number or percentage of members of a study group that share a common trait, e.g. the number of identical twins in which both twins have autism
Dizygotic twins—fraternal twins, develop from two different eggs fertilized by two different sperms
DSM-IV-TR—Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fourth Edition, Text Revised), widely used manual for mental health professionals that classifies psychological disorders, published by American Psychiatric Association
Monozygotic twins—identical twins; genetically identical siblings who share 100% of their genes because they developed from a single fertilized egg in utero
Pediatrician—a medical doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of childhood illnesses
Proband—person in family who originally comes to the attention of a diagnostician
Psychiatrist—a medical doctor and the only mental health professional who can prescribe medication or perform surgery in all of the states of the U.S.
Psychologist—scientist who studies behavior and mental processes, generally has earned Ph.D. or Psy.D., and may be a clinician or researcher or both
Skuse, David and Rebecca Chilvers (2006), The Hidden Face of Autism, BBS Media
Haddon, Mark, (2003), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Doubleday, New York
Bailey, A., Le Couteur, A., Gottesman, I., Bolton, P., Simonoff, E., Yuzda, E., Rutter, M., (1995), Autism as a strongly genetic disorder: evidence from a British twin study. Psychological Medicine, 25, pp. 63-77, Cambridge University Press
Ekman, P. (1999), Basic Emotions. In T. Dalgleish and T. Power (Eds.) The Handbook of Cognition and Emotion Pp. 45-60. Sussex, U.K.: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Student Worksheet—Part 1: A Failure to Communicate
Although both of her twins seemed to behave normally when they were newborns, DJ’s mother noticed that John looked at her when he was breast feeding and DJ didn’t. At their first annual check-up, DJ’s dad remarked to the pediatrician that DJ didn’t look at them when they talked to him, didn’t respond to the sound of their voices, and preferred to play alone rather than with others, even John.
The physician checked DJ’s hearing, and said that he wouldn’t be alarmed.
Perhaps John and DJ just had different kinds of personalities. After all, they certainly didn’t look alike. But as time passed, DJ’s parents became more and more concerned. By age 2, John said more words and spoke more clearly than DJ. He also liked to play with other children, while DJ would play in the corner with the same toys all the time.
At age 4, John and DJ started pre-kindergarten at the local school. “I hope that DJ is just going through a stage and will grow out of it soon,” DJ’s mother sighed after reading the report from the school district’s speech and language therapist. She had consented to have the specialist meet with DJ so that his lisping and difficulty being understood could be addressed by people with more expertise than she had.
“The speech pathologist thinks that DJ has more than a speech problem, and that he should see the district’s psychologist; I hope it’s not autism,” she told her husband.
“We’ve both known that there’s more of a problem than his speech, but we’ve been reluctant to label it,” replied her husband. “Although DJ and John are twins, they’re so different. John seems so popular with the other children and defends DJ when kids or the teacher yell at him for taking toys or not listening. Now that DJ’s in school, we need to do something more.”
Frustrated, DJ’s mother agreed with his dad, “DJ appears to be in his own world. If he keeps banging Thomas the Train against the table leg, the table’s going to collapse—and so am I!”
1. Watch the video clip of DJ (George 10:16-10:50). What behaviors does DJ show that aren’t typical of the little boys with whom you’re familiar?
2. Go to #875 on G2C.
a. What aspects of DJ’s behavior, that his parents described and you’ve observed, seem to fit the DSM IV diagnostic criteria of autism?
b. How are the diagnostic criteria for autism from DSM IV different from those of ADI?
3. Why might DJ’s parents be concerned that John will develop autistic disorder?
4. What kinds of stresses does DJ’s behavior seem to exert on the family?
Student Worksheet—Part 2: Like Two Peas in a Pod?
Following several visits, the child psychologist offered extensive services to DJ and his family. He also asked the parents if they would be willing to let their twin sons participate in a research investigation designed to further understanding of autistic disorders. When DJ’s parents consented, the psychologist introduced them to the investigative team.
The research team included a psychiatrist, a clinical researcher, and statistician. The study they were conducting included both monozygotic and dizygotic twins.
1. Go to #869.
a. Are DJ and his twin monozygotic or dizygotic?
b. How do you know?
c. Using your knowledge of biology, compare the genetic make up of monozygotic twins with the genetic make up of dizygotic twins.
A: Monozygotic Twins B: Dizygotic Twins
2. Using the 3Di* (Developmental, Dimensional and Diagnostic Interview) based on the diagnostic criteria for autism, the psychiatrist screened each of the twins. DJ met the criteria for individuals with Autistic Disorder. John did not. At #869, look at the table on page 2: Autism among monozygotic and dizygotic twins.
a. If DJ and John had been included in this study by A. Bailey et al, where would their data have been entered?
b. Consider that the samples are representative of all pairs of same-sex twins in which at least one twin is a diagnosed individual with autistic disorder. Formulate a valid statement about the incidence of autism in males vs. females.
c. Concordance rate, for this study, is the percentage of monozygotic pairs or dizygotic pairs both of whom have autism. At #869, look at the table on page 3: Pair-wise concordance by zygosity. How does the concordance rate for monozygotic twins differ from the concordance rate for dizygotic twins?
3. Go to #908, showing a chromosome map of autism.
a. Which chromosomes appear to have genes that are candidates for helping to cause autism?
b. Why is it so difficult to determine the genes that help cause autism?
1. How is diagnosing autism different from diagnosing a broken (fractured) arm?
2. How does the difference in concordance rate of autism in monozygotic twins compared with the dizygotic twins support the hypothesis that autism has a genetic component?
*(You can learn more about the 3Di by visiting http://www.ixdx.org/.)
Student Worksheet – Part 3: Identifying Facial Expressions
Over 100 years ago Charles Darwin made observations about the universality of facial expressions across primates such as chimpanzees and humans. More recently renowned psychologists Paul Ekman and Carroll Izard did extensive cross-cultural research establishing the universality of facial expressions. Numerous other studies have supported the hypothesis that very sociable people tend to read facial expressions and body language successfully. Individuals with autism seem to have great difficulty reading facial expressions and body language.
1. How might reading facial expressions be adaptive? (Remember: An adaptation is a structure or behavior that increases the organism’s chances of survival).
2. How can misreading facial expressions lead to interpersonal problems? Give an example.
3. Go to # 866: Dissect-a-face. Look closely at the facial expressions. Describe how:
a. the happy expression differs from the sad expression
b. the angry expression differs from the fearful one
c. Characterize the facial expression for surprise. In your characterization, describe the shape and positions of the eyebrows, eyes, nose and mouth. If you prefer, sketch your characterization of surprise.
4. By dragging and dropping the upper and lower parts of the face, create mixtures of expressions and suggest a situation that might evoke each.
a. Upper part of expression label: Lower part label:
b. Upper part of expression label: Lower part label:
5. Go to #867: Reading Faces. While generally people can easily identify the six Dissect-a-face expressions, many people find it difficult to identify other expressions. People with autism find identifying emotions challenging. Try identifying all emotions shown in Reading Faces.
a. How many did you identify correctly (with your first “guess”)?
b. Most people identify at least a few of the facial expressions incorrectly. If you identified some incorrectly, how do you think this helps you understand people with autism better?
Student Worksheet – Part 4: The Hidden Face of Autism
View the interview of Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a novel about a boy with autism, at #.
Mark Haddon said, “There is this rather sort of joking widom… that autism and Asperger’s are just an extreme form of maleness. Generate a hypothesis to test this assertion.
Develop a protocol to test your hypothesis.
Would it be possible to perform a controlled experiment to test your hypothesis?
Why or why not?