Scholar Pursues New Treatments for Autism

Loisa Bennetto Bennetto (above) helped form one of Rochester’s many crossdisciplinary collaborations to study autism’s origins and potential treatments. (Photo: University Communications)

Loisa Bennetto, associate professor and chair of Rochester's Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology often hears parents report that their children with autism are very particular about what they will eat, even insisting on foods of only a certain color, texture, or taste, for example.

"Parents frequently tell us that their children with autism are picky eaters, and for some children, it can have a significant impact on their health," says Bennetto, has spent much of her scholarly career trying to unravel the biological and psychological mechanisms behind autism, a neurological developmental disorder with no known cause that affects as many as 1 in 150 children in the United States.

"Understanding why a child with autism refuses certain foods could be a tremendous help to struggling families."

That understanding could also help identify the hereditary source for the atypical sensory perceptions—and may help isolate some of the genes—involved in autism.

Bennetto has led multiple studies on sensory processing, particularly the processing of taste and smell. Restrictive eating habits, as well as unusual responses to tastes and smells—either hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity—are among the most common traits of people with autism.

She works on characterizing these traits—or what's called the phenotype of the study participants—while her husband, Medical Center coinvestigator Christopher Stodgell, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, studies the genotype of participants and their families, looking for gene variants that might be associated with particular traits.

The two are looking at restrictive eating behaviors among children with autism and asking: To what degree are restrictive eating habits due to the patient's processing of sensory information such as taste and smell? To what extent are they merely another instance of the patient's general insistence on rigid, predictable routines? Do the traits run in families or are they particular to autism?

Bennetto notes that eating involves many senses. Smell contributes to our sense of taste, but so too does visual information, such as color, and tactile information, such as texture. "If children with autism have trouble integrating that information, it's going to affect their food preferences."

"The big question is, how do these underlying sensory difficulties drive our ideas about treatment?" she adds.