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The REAACT Research Lab: Enhancing Quality of Life for Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder

By Nancy Kennedy

Carla MazefskyWhen Carla Mazefsky was a student at The College of William and Mary, she happened to see a poster advertising a part-time job, helping to care for a nine-year old boy with autism. As a junior majoring in psychology, with plans to attend graduate school, she found this opportunity intriguing, but even more appealing was the photograph of an adorable boy with big blue eyes, accompanied by the words “Do You Want to Help Make a Miracle?”

She did, and so she took the job, and fortuitously found her life’s work. Decades later, Carla Mazefsky, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and the director of the REAACT (Regulation of Emotion in ASD Adults, Children and Teens) Research Program, Center for Excellence in Autism Research, at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She is a licensed psychologist, a leader in autism research and an expert in the clinical care of persons with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). At the REAACT Lab, Dr. Mazefsky and her team focus on emotion regulation and associated emotional and behavioral concerns in ASD, and conduct research on the underlying mechanisms that contribute to emotional regulation as well as the development of new assessment and treatment approaches.

Emotional regulation refers to the ability to control and manage one’s own emotional reactions. Persons with this capacity are able to mitigate feelings of anger or anxiety, cope with frustration, reduce the intensity of emotions such as fear or sadness, and remain calm in emotional situations. “Persons with ASD tend to have difficulty with emotional regulation, especially with controlling aggression and frustration, and this often leads to difficulty in interacting with others,” Dr. Mazefsky explains. “When emotion regulation is impaired, it gets in the way of school performance, social interactions, and it increases parent stress. By improving understanding of how and why emotion regulation is impaired in ASD, how to measure it in a way that is sensitive to change, and how to improve it, we believe we have the potential to substantially improve overall outcomes and well-being for those with ASD.”

The REAACT team includes psychologists and social workers, and Dr. Mazefsky works with trainees from a variety of schools: post-doctoral fellows, medical students, residents in psychiatry and others. “Our mission is to improve the lives of persons with autism and other developmental disorders,” she says. “We focus on improving treatment options and measuring outcomes for mental health and emotional problems. There can be a lot of behavioral disturbances and challenges that are tough for families, especially in regard to emotional dysregulation and the transition to adulthood. Explosive behavior, irritability, meltdowns, social withdrawal or shutting down, and feelings of sadness and depression are not adequately addressed by current approaches. The need for interventions to support emotional regulation and well-being is urgent but the available options are limited. At REAACT, we have adopted a broader approach that targets the underlying process that we believe contributes to all of these issues – emotion regulation.”

The REAACT Lab provides a variety of services, all within the context of research. Dr. Mazefsky and the staff generously share their knowledge and experience and are a resource to ASD researchers and clinicians throughout the world. They conduct educational outreach both locally and nationally and their expertise is in demand. “We have developed a lot of materials that we share widely, and we publish quite a bit in scientific and clinical journals,” Dr. Mazefsky says. “We help people to modify their practices. The questionnaire we developed is used all over the world for free.”

The REAACT lab currently has seven ongoing research studies and is recruiting participants from the community for all of them. “We are looking for families to partner with us in this research. We have a lot of studies that need recruitment across the lifespan (From three years old to adulthood). Several of the studies involve all-online participation.

You can usually participate online, through interviews and questionnaires that provide us with valuable feedback. We pay for your participation, you may get free treatment, plus you get a great sense of satisfaction for contributing to research that leads to progress in helping persons with ASD and other developmental disorders. The needs of families are varied, as some children are significantly affected while others may be college-bound – but all of the families are struggling, and we are doing our best to help them. We need families to help us achieve our goal, of enhancing quality of life for persons with ASD by working to better understand and improve emotional regulation.”

If you would like to help make miracles for individuals with ASD by participating in research studies, or for more information, contact (412) 246-5485, 1-866-647-3436, or autismrecruiter@pitt.edu. To contact Carla Mazefsky, Ph.D., email mazefskyca@upmc.edu.

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