Birtwell, whose study is not funded by Suskind’s company, has patients who are using the app on their own. “My colleagues and I at the Lurie Center are very excited about this technology, but it’s difficult to put too much stock in it quite yet without the scientific evidence to do so,” she says. “We want to validate patients’ and families’ experiences.” If the pilot experiment shows promise, she adds, “we would want to conduct a much, much larger study.”
Others in the research community are also taking a closer look at affinities. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, neuroscientist John Gabrieli is about to shine an fMRI scanner on the subject. His team will be recruiting 40 children with ASD for a study that will examine what happens in their brains when they are shown videos known to be deeply tied to their affinities, contrasting that with their reactions to related materials that the children or their families have indicated are somewhat less compelling. “We are individually tailoring the stimulus to each child’s selected interest,” he explains. Gabrieli is also unaffiliated with Suskind’s company.
A preliminary trial with one subject showed selective activation in the orbital frontal cortex, which is a major component of the brain’s reward circuitry. This finding would need to be confirmed by the full study—but the idea makes sense, because for many kids with ASD there is nothing more rewarding than engaging in their special interest. Ultimately, Gabrieli hopes a better understanding of the neural underpinnings of affinity could help identify which kids would benefit from an affinity-related intervention—whether Sidekicks or something else. In general, he notes, it has been “spectacularly difficult” to understand what’s going on in the autistic brain. And the area of affinities has been particularly understudied.