Students studying outside the library

Holladay studies social interactions of autistic children

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Community of Scholars research gives fresh perspective on autism 

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - When Wofford College senior Holly Holladay worked in a clinic for autistic children last fall, she met an intriguing little boy, “Tom.” She became interested in the differences in how Tom interacted with other autistic children as opposed to non-autistic children. That intrigue led to Holladay’s research project in this summer’s Community of Scholars.

The Manning, S.C., student was one of 19 student fellows participating in the program.

Holladay studied the social interactions of children with autism with other autistic children compared to their interactions with non-autistic children. She became interested in the neurological disorder in the fall when she worked with the husband of a Wofford alumnus, Mark Knight, director at HOPEReach Clinic for Autism in Woodruff, S.C.

During Holladay’s sessions with “Tom” (we’re not using his real name for privacy purposes), she noticed something. “Tom would often repeat phrases he heard from another autistic child, but would simply ignore a non-autistic kid. I felt that he was picking up on something and running with it,” she says. “I wondered whether there was something there, and that’s where my idea (for her research project) came from.”

Her hypothesis was that “high-functioning autistic individuals would mimic the activities of lower-functioning children on the spectrum, and such behavior would cause further social isolation from typically developing individuals.”

Holladay’s goal, ultimately, is to educate others about autism, but to do that, she feels she must first strip away their inevitable misconceptions.

Most people, including her audience for her research, don’t know a lot about autism. “A lot of people think of Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie ‘Rainman,’ but there are so many things that we have come up with since (the movie was released in the late 1980s) in terms of behavioral therapies that can help (these) kids. There are autistic kids attending colleges all over the world, so obviously it isn’t debilitating in all cases – one of those misconceptions.”

Holladay’s research included direct observation of social interactions between children on the autistic spectrum with each other and with typically developing children at HOPEReach, along with reviewing literature on the subject, including journals and autobiographical accounts of the experiences of autistic individuals. “These were especially enlightening,” she says. “During my observations, I found that autistic children do not approach, make eye contact or engage in conversations with other autistic children any more than they do with typically developing children.

“However, higher-functioning autistic children do sometimes mimic the behaviors of lower-functioning children on the spectrum,” she continues, adding that even that serves it purpose. “The higher-functioning children learn that this behavior is inappropriate, either from adult intervention or from the responses they receive from other children.”

Holladay concludes that her original hypothesis is incorrect. “Autistic individuals gain a better understanding of social interactions from exposure to all people, including those on the (autistic) spectrum.”

Holladay says her research has given her a fresh perspective on autism and those affected by it. “I’ve learned a lot. It’s been a really rewarding experience for me. It’s definitely a possibility that I will go to grad school and do more with this research.”

In the meantime, Holladay’s project is a textbook example of the value of the Community of Scholars program that emphasizes cross-disciplinary discussion of research.

“My fellow scholars have been great,” she says. “They’ve been really helpful. Two of my roommates (were) doing their projects on art history, and one (did) hers on breast cancer. Not much in common with what I’m doing, yet we’ve (were) able to bounce ideas off of each other. This is so helpful because in the beginning I had all this information and had no idea how I was going to compile it or make it make sense for other people. It … allowed me to streamline my project because they ask questions that I felt my audience (would) be asking.”