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Emerson College's student newspaper

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College's student newspaper

The Berkeley Beacon

Communication Sciences and Disorders Professor receives $2.5 million grant to fund autism research

Photo: Annie Zhou
Communication Sciences and Disorders professor Ruth Grossman explains the purpose and operation of the SMI eye tracking glasses. (Annie Zhou for The Beacon)

The National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders under the National Institutes of Health (NIH) allocated a $2.5 million grant to Communication Sciences and Disorders professor Ruth Grossman. Grossman and a team of four other researchers will record and analyze the natural language behaviors of autistic and nonautistic teens over a five-year period. 

“I’m hoping that it’ll shed some light on natural interactions, [get] away from determining somebody’s language abilities based on just standardized tests, [and bring] day-to-day interactions into the research realm,” Grossman said. 

The grant will provide the funding necessary for Grossman to hire a research assistant to help with data collection. Grossman and her colleagues collected pilot data for the grant through their respective labs, which was submitted as a part of the NIH proposal.

“We pulled all of these pieces together to demonstrate that this work is important and meaningful and has a strong chance of succeeding,” Grossman said. 

Grossman and her colleagues Julia Parish-Morris, Inge-Marie Eigsti, Ethan Weed, and Riccardo Fusaroli first submitted a grant proposal to NIH in the spring of 2019. The proposal was not selected, and COVID-19 caused delays in its revision process. 

They submitted a revised proposal in the spring of 2023 and learned in June that they received the grant for their project “Ready to Connect: Conversation and Language in Autistic Teens.”  

“Getting a grant is always a lesson in perseverance,” Grossman said. “…We had different reactions. Some of us celebrated quietly, some of us celebrated loudly, and some of us decided not to celebrate until it was real.”

Through the project, Grossman and her team will evaluate either neuro-type matched or neuro-type discordant conversations. To evaluate conversation “success,” the team will have teenagers with autism conversing with one another as well as with non-autistic teenagers. Following these conversations, the researchers will ask questions relating to personal experience. 

NIH proposals are a “massive undertaking,” according to Grossman, as they require information about the project’s science components and organizational structure. Upon submission, the proposal undergoes a scientific review process where it is evaluated, scored, and placed in a percentile rank. The NIH Advisory Council meets to determine which grants they will fund. Grossman and her team learned their proposal scored in the second percentile.

“A mentor of mine once said, ‘We write the grants so that we can do the work,’” Grossman said. “It’s wanting to do this work and needing resources to do it.”

Part of the grant also will go toward an autism advisory panel where Grossman and the team will have “autistic voices and voices of other autism stakeholders involved in every aspect of the grant.”

The research team crossed paths by collaborating on research papers and projects, but the “common denominator,” according to Grossman, is the annual Conference of the International Society for Autism Research.

“I can’t think of a better foundation,” Grossman said. “These are researchers who I thoroughly respect, who have amazing and wonderful skills and are brilliant and smart in every way. We each bring something else to the table.” 

Grossman and her team will collect data from several hundred participants primarily through online resources. In-person data collection will be administered at the University of Connecticut, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the FACE Lab at Emerson. 

Each researcher brings their own expertise, with Grossman being the only speech pathologist. To Grossman, it is “trying to put all of those pieces together so that we can produce the best science possible as a collaborative team.”

Grossman leads a team of student lab assistants at the FACE Lab on campus. Currently, the FACE Lab team is composed of Emerson, Brandeis University, and Harvard University students. 

Vivian Nguyen, junior communications disorders major, worked at the FACE Lab through a co-curricular research assistant program during the fall 2022 semester of her sophomore year. Over the course of the semester, Nguyen attended weekly meetings run by Grossman and worked between four and six hours a week in the lab. 

“She was a good person to learn under, super smart, so knowledgeable about the field,” Nguyen said, referring to her experience working with Grossman. “I was happy for her, and I know how important her research is to her.”

Grossman is currently on leave from teaching at Emerson due to her involvement in the Harvard Radcliffe Institute Fellowship Program. Through the program, a group of 54 fellows from different disciplines collaborate on projects from September until May. Grossman proposed a project regarding the “intersectionality of autism and gender.”  

“My hope is to broaden my horizons and learn more about work that relates to what I’m doing but that I don’t already know about,” Grossman said. “…I hope and expect that the work I’m doing this year at Radcliffe and at the FACE Lab is going to inform all of my research going forward, including the Ready to Connect project.” 

Grossman plans on working at the FACE Lab during and after the Radcliffe program to continue data collection for the project and return to teaching when the program concludes.

“My entire career has been related to this,” Grossman said. “Everything I’ve done so far has led to this.”

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About the Contributor
Bridget Frawley, Staff Writer
Bridget Frawley (she/her) is a freshman journalism major from Jupiter, Florida. When she is not writing for the news section, she is a morning anchor for Mornings with George Knight on WERS 88.9 FM. She also loves reading, going on long walks, and thrifting.

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