Psychology student pioneering autism study

Psychology major Heather Haught ’11 is a pioneer in her field of study.

With the help of Psychology Assistant Professor Dr. Alicia Doerflinger, Haught is currently conducting the second phase of a two-part experiment titled “The Effect of Food Preferences, Food Intake and Taster Status on Body Weight in Children with Autism.” The project is funded using money Haught was granted by the Marietta College Investigative Studies Program.

To date, researchers have ignored this subject. “Nothing of this nature has ever been done before with respect to the autistic population. This could have a large influence on treatment and intervention in maladaptive feeding behaviors,” Haught said.

The first phase of research focused solely on children between the ages of 3 and 7 living in Ohio. Of the 43 children involved, less than one-sixth had been diagnosed with autism. Each participant tasted salty, sour, sweet and bitter foods. Every child was then asked to select his or her favorites from the 10 choices.

In contrast, the second phase of the study will examine how genetics and food preference affect feeding behavior and weight regulation in autistic adults and children. Volunteers will be asked to monitor and record their food intake for five days by creating an eating inventory journal. A parent will need to complete this step for those 18 and under involved in the study.

In addition, all participants and parents of underage participants will determine their “taster status.” This is done by placing a piece of Phenol Thiocarbamide (PTC) paper on the tongue, removing it seconds later and ranking the taste of the strip. The final component of the research project is a height and weight measurement of every volunteer.

The study has significant implications for the autistic community. Results will provide suggestions about developing a diet that caters to the needs of this special population.

“Children and adults with autism struggle with simple daily functions, such as eating, which are so pertinent to survival. Participation will give us a greater overall understanding of how we will be able to help mitigate the effects of autism on maladaptive feeding behaviors,” Haught said. Knowledge gleaned from the investigation may also aid in treatment of childhood obesity amongst the population at large.

Haught was cognizant of designing a project that would be a minimal infringement on participants’ lives. Research members are not required to attend any test sessions and shouldn’t notice any major changes to their daily schedules.

While qualifications for the pilot portion of the study were stringent, any adult or child living in the United States may participate in the second phase of the research project.

Those interested should contact Haught via e-mail at hmh001@marietta.edu to obtain a release form.