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Kim Carpenter on Autism, Anxiety and the Importance of Collaboration

Kim Carpenter is part of an interdisciplinary team looking for new autism treatments.
Kim Carpenter is part of an interdisciplinary team collaborating to study autism.

An assistant research professor at the Social Science Research Institute, Kim Carpenter is a neurobiologist specializing in translational developmental neuroscience, with expertise in functional and structural neuroimaging in clinical and pediatric populations. 

Carpenter is also an instructor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. She is working with an interdisciplinary group of Duke researchers seeking to increase access to evidence-based screening, diagnosis and treatment of autism and associated psychiatric comorbidities in children from birth to 5 years of age.  Below, she discusses her research and how Duke scholars are advancing autism research.

Q: Your research focuses on understanding how to best help individuals with autism or other developmental disabilities reach their full potential. Can you tell us a little about your research and what you hope to achieve?

Carpenter: I work with the preschool age range, pretty much anyone under the age of seven. Specifically, I am looking at understanding autism and associated psychiatric and mental health disorders such as anxiety and ADHD. The goal is to learn why kids with autism tend to have higher anxiety. I’m also interested in looking at children in that same age range that don’t have autism, but do have high anxiety. The big question is, are there shared pathways in kids who develop anxiety? 

It’s a complex and important question. The research looks exclusively at sensory disorders in children with autism, who seem to have heightened responses to sensory experiences that cause distress: loud noises, tags in t-shirts, etc. Are these pathways to anxiety for kids with autism? A lot of kids with autism also have these types of sensory issues. So what does that mean?

Through this work, I hope to increase access to, and provide a solid neurobiological foundation for, evidence-based screening, diagnosis and treatment of autism and associated psychiatric comorbidities in children.


Q: Your current project is Sensory Processing and Anxiety in Preschool Age Children with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder. Can you explain what sensory processing is and its link with autism?

Carpenter: Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition that includes children who are overly sensitive to what they feel and see and hear, but also those who are undersensitive, and still others who have trouble integrating information from multiple senses at once. Studying people who have sensory problems with or without an autism diagnosis could help these children and provide insight into the relationship between sensory problems and the core social and communication problems seen in autism.


Q: Have you always been interested in autism research? What led you to pursue this topic?

Carpenter: Yes, I’ve always known I wanted to do this type of research. Well, after I gave up on my dreams of being a dolphin trainer. No, seriously. I went to college to be a marine biologist, but during three years at college I also worked with a child that had autism. Whenever he got anxious, his social relatedness would decrease and repetitive behaviors would increase. I was enamored by him and became fascinated with the disorder and wanted to understand more. How does autism affect children differently? How is it treated? How does this affect families? I specifically went to graduate school to study autism. When I became a postdoc I studied preschool anxiety and now as a faculty member, I am researching brain development.


Q: Is autism more prevalent today or just being diagnosed better? 

Carpenter: The data shows that the answer is a bit of both. There are more diagnoses but also more knowledge. Evidence suggests that increases are over and above what is to be expected just from better diagnoses and services. There are definitely other factors that are causing the increase of autism and the goal is to better understand what those factors are. There are studies dedicated to just this type of research.


Q: What are your hopes for children and families that are dealing with autism?

Carpenter: If we can identify kids that are at risk, we can change their trajectory in life. Parents will better recognize the behaviors and early intervention equals better outcomes. For parents and doctors there is dealing with the disability after diagnoses. What comes next? Hopefully our research will help people understand the risk factors and mechanisms and how to use that information for targeted interventions. Most of all, it’s important to teach parents how to support kids in an effort to better deal with their sensory disorders.


Q: You work with other researchers from a wide range of disciplines and include faculty in the School of Medicine, Pratt School of Engineering, and the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences. What are the benefits of this type of collaboration?

“We can only get answers if we have multiple perspectives so collaboration is essential when looking at the brain, behavior, and interaction. Collaboration is the key to understanding these really difficult questions.”
-- Kim Carpenter

Carpenter: This is my calling. Early childhood mental health, brain development, autism…it’s all so complicated and interesting. We can only get answers if we have multiple perspectives so collaboration is essential when looking at the brain, behavior, and interaction. Collaboration is the key to understanding these really difficult questions.

We are working with a multiple level big data question that involves parent reports, observations of the children, brain-based data on large samples, and more. I’m a neurobiologist working with psychiatrists, psychologists and experts in computer vision so that we can get quantitative and objective measures of behavior. Machine learning enables us to take the big data and capitalize on the multilevel data. If you simply look at your research in your silo, you’re going to miss the big picture completely. Having people with different expertise allows us to make big gains in our research. 


Q: How did you hear about SSRI and what are the benefits of working with the Institute?

Carpenter: I got linked up with SSRI once I started working with Guillermo Sapiro in engineering and iiD. SSRI was our hub to bring together this multidisciplinary team to push our work forward. SSRI is the home of the same mindset as me: a multidisciplinary approach to research. Tom has really tried to help foster my career and I have benefited greatly from working with the grants staff and getting help at the Connection Bar. And of course, the coffee is great!