March 2, 2017

Purdue Profiles: A.J. Schwichtenberg

A. J. Schwichtenberg A.J. Schwichtenberg, assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. (Photo provided) Download image

A.J. Schwichtenberg, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, is one of nine core faculty in the Purdue Autism Cluster, and she serves as co-director with Mandy Rispoli, an associate professor in Educational Studies. Schwichtenberg, who also has courtesy appointments in the departments of Psychological Sciences and Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, is researching childhood development trajectories, especially as they relate to sleep and autism.

What is the focus of your research?

I wear two hats, one as a pediatric sleep researcher, and one as a scientist interested in developmental trajectories in autism. And, as you can imagine, those intersect because the majority of children who are on the autism spectrum also have sleep problems and those sleep problems can influence their development. I also want to note that I am interested in developmental trajectories in children at risk in general, not just autism, such as children who were born pre-term or who have older siblings with other developmental delays.

Can you describe your research studies?

My most recent research project looks at the roles of sleep in early autism identification. My lab, the Developmental Studies Laboratory, just completed a four-year longitudinal study looking at sleep infants and toddlers from 6 to 36 months of age. We are in the process of analyzing that data. We’ve followed 100 families for three years, and they were gracious enough to share their lives with us. I am truly grateful for these families. We went into their homes to record their child’s sleep at 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 24, 30 and 36 months. These were really dedicated families.

Some of the infants we followed were siblings of children with autism. We are looking at the developmental trajectories of these children and the roles that sleep and self-regulation played in their development. Within this group, 20 percent went on to receive an autism diagnosis, an additional 40 percent had other developmental concerns, and there were also several children who were typically developing through 36 months of age.

In addition to your data analysis, what are the next steps in your research?

My research has clearly demonstrated there are groups of at-risk infants and the question is no longer are they at risk, but the question is what can we do to help these families. And that is the pilot study we are starting this summer; we will be evaluating an intervention to try to boost social communicative development in these at-risk infants. We are looking for families raising children between 6 and 36 months of age who are developing at risk. If you are interested in learning more please e-mail ajlab@purdue.edu 

The Purdue Autism Cluster has been in the works for a few years. What is exciting about the cluster so far?

Thanks to support from the University, our faculty research lines across colleges are nearly filled, and we will have our cluster full after this year. What’s been really fabulous about the cluster is the immediate boost in interdisciplinary work across departments and colleges. Within the past two years, at least 10 pilot studies have been launched thanks to the efforts of the cluster. These include studies that bridge animal and human models, MRI and intervention, and so much more.

What do you think the Autism Cluster will bring to campus in the near future?

In the next year, we’ll continue our autism-focused seminar series. We aim to bring well-known autism speakers to Purdue and the larger community. We also plan to grow our community partnerships and to support neurodiversity here at Purdue. We also have an educational arm, and we’ve been approved for an autism honors undergraduate course next year. These courses include an advanced undergraduate/graduate course – “HDFS 590, Interdisciplinary Studies in Autism.” Additionally, Purdue Autism Cluster member Brandon Keehn, an assistant professor of speech, language and hearing sciences, teaches an introductory course – “Understanding Autism” (SLHS 419/PSY 392/HDFS 390). Also available are autism-specific research experiences in Rispoli’s Intervention Research Lab and I offer opportunities through the Developmental Studies Laboratory.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu 


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