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Understanding Autism – Shannon Tass


When Professor Shannon Tass was a graduate student she focused her statistics research on cancer. Why? Because she wanted to make a difference.


“I guess I’ve always liked working on problems that matter,” Tass said. “I’ve moved away from biostatistics and medical problems [since grad school], but that’s why I enjoy going back to autism. I feel like this kind of research can be important in really understanding who we are. I find that rewarding.”

Tass has recently been involved in a number a research projects with an interdisciplinary group of BYU psychology and education professors. The group, Autism Connect, works to understand many of the complex issues linked to autism.

In early 2018, the group published research linking brain-stem volume with aggression in autism. Even more recently, Autism Connect published research on the effect of psychotherapy—meeting with mental health professionals—on BYU students with and without autism.

“We’re looking at how counseling can benefit distressed students with autism,” Tass said.

Before or after students visit the counseling center at BYU, they take a self-report survey called the Outcome Questionnaire. It’s used by professionals in the field to evaluate the mental health status of patients. Tass helped analyze the data that was collected from these surveys.

“That was my role—a lot of data cleaning and then analyzing it. We looked at different mixed models and random-effect models and then some quantile regression,” Tass said.

Her analysis indicated that counseling can benefit students with autism the same way it benefits those without autism. However, in order to achieve the same results, the autism group needs to stay in therapy about twice as long.

“They [students with and without autism] have similar outcomes, but [for autism patients] it just takes longer,” Tass said.

Although the results were encouraging, there were a few obstacles that Tass encountered while conducting the research. “Cleaning the data” involved linking each questionnaire to an actual appointment attended by a student. Since students may fill out the questionnaire days before or after an appointment, and some students cancel appointments even though they filled out the questionnaire, it was difficult to make accurate links.

“The other problem is that in this data set there’s close to 20,000 students who have gone through [psychotherapy], and there’s probably 200 [of the] students with autism,” Tass said.

In order to confirm the findings of the initial study, Tass and Autism Connect are focusing their research on a broader group of students outside of BYU. They hope it will assist students with autism, as well as their families, in finding available support.

“There’s a lot of push in this group to just help these students—help them understand who they are and give them hope.  Anxiety levels . . . and suicide rates are high among [people with] autism,” Tass said.

That’s why this research is meaningful.

“I just feel like it’s important to help [others] understand different ways of helping these people cope with life,” Tass said. “Life is difficult for everyone, and then you have this added disease where your brain doesn’t necessarily work like other people’s brains. Trying to understand that and giving them the hope of a good life is really important.”