Social Attention in Pediatric Brain Tumor Survivors and Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Children receiving treatment for brain tumors (such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery) often experience social difficulties after tumor-directed therapy has concluded. These difficulties can mirror problems commonly seen with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  These can include deficits with facial expression recognition, fewer friendships, and greater social isolation compared to other children.  Additionally, previous studies have suggested that injuries to specific brain regions (commonly seen with brain tumors) can lead to impairments similar to ASD. Considering the overlapping social difficulties in both groups of children, research is needed that examines shared and distinct mechanisms of social adjustment among children with ASD and those treated for brain tumors.

Researchers at the Center for Childhood Cancer Research, including Matthew C. Hocking, PhD, are collecting data on long-term brain tumor survivors to help identify specific areas of social difficulty and the factors that contribute to or hinder their social abilities.

In one study, children are being assessed on measures capturing multiple elements of social abilities including facial recognition, emotional recognition, and social attention (i.e. where one attunes their gaze when watching social stimuli). Findings from these measures are then being compared with analogous data collected from a group of children diagnosed with ASD.  MRI scans are also incorporated, to allow researchers to identity the particular brain structures responsible for commonalities and differences in social abilities among these children.

Results of this study will aide in the development of interventions for child brain tumor survivors, targeting specific areas of post-treatment social difficulties. Furthermore, the study will increase our knowledge of biological underpinnings of ASD and factors influencing social abilities of these children.