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Seeking Optimal Outcomes for Children with Autism

Posted on April 24, 2015 10:15 am by Lauren Kirkpatrick

Kevin Pelphrey

Kevin Pelphrey makes a child feel comfortable about the electroencephalography cap he will place on the youngster’s head to monitor brain activity. Photo courtesy of Yale University.

The brains of autistic girls appear to be wired more normally than those of autistic boys — and that can be both a blessing and a curse, according to Kevin Pelphrey (Psychology ’96), the Harris Professor at Yale University and director of Yale’s Center for Developmental Neuroscience.

Pelphrey is the principal investigator on a five-year, $15 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that is investigating why autism is more prevalent in boys than in girls. Officials say Pelphrey’s grant is one of the largest awards the NIH has ever given for autism research.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that autism is five times more common in boys, and Pelphrey and his collaborators want to know why.
They hope that understanding brain differences can help them craft treatments that are tailored better by gender and eventually for each individual child. The researchers are evaluating a group of 1,200 children through brain imaging, genetic testing and a series of clinical and behavioral tests.

The study has already yielded some significant findings related to what researchers call “camouflage” in autistic girls, says Pelphrey.

“It looks like the parts of girls’ brains that respond to social stimuli and understand other people are developed earlier and are more robust than boys,” says Pelphrey. “They are building up more of a capacity early on to interact socially, so they can look the same in a social situation, but it takes a great deal more effort.”

That means that autistic girls are more likely to be bullied and to suffer stress-induced illnesses, especially when they enter the adolescent years, where social skills become so important.

By contrast, boys are usually more severely impaired by their autism, but that may actually protect them socially, says Pelphrey.

“They don’t realize they are different, and it matters less to them in terms of their acceptance by the world and especially by potential friends,” he explains. “So if you’re a boy, you can carry quite a bit of social deficit and be treated fairly normally and fairly well. But if you’re a girl — especially in the teenage years — even a little bit of a social deficit is quite a disability. It’s very noticed and they can’t get away from it.”

Another concern about camouflage is that it could mean girls are being diagnosed with depression or other psychiatric disorders when they actually have autism, according to Pelphrey.

“If the actual brain differences between brains with autism and typically developing brains are different in boys and girls, that would lead to better treatment because they would be getting more appropriate treatment,” he says.

Family, career roots planted at NC State

Pelphrey readily admits that he was immature when he came to NC State. He started in the University Undesignated program, a precursor to the university’s First Year College, because he wasn’t ready to declare a major.

Several big things happened to him during his time as an undesignated student.

First, he met Barbara Soloman, who coordinated advising for the small, highly selective program.  Pelphrey credits her with guiding him so he could sample different classes across the university but maintain a sense of direction.

“She was big on drawing connections between fields and showing us common themes,” says Pelphrey. “Most people found a major after the first year or so.”

It took Pelphrey two years to land on psychology — but that’s because he had an ulterior motive.
He had fallen in love.

Annie Chalmers (Business Management ‘95) was also in the undesignated program, but she was on the path to declaring a major in business finance. Pelphrey arranged to take some of the same classes, despite little interest in the subject.

Even though he got an F in one class, his gamble worked. The two eventually married and have five children in their blended family. Their daughter Frances, now 11, was diagnosed with autism at age four.
At the time, there were few treatments available for autistic children. Fortunately, Pelphrey was more equipped than many parents to understand the diagnosis, due in part to his former NC State faculty advisor and psychology professor Lynne Baker-Ward.

At Baker-Ward’s urging, Pelphrey went on to receive his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he ended up doing work on autism in children. UNC was recently named the No. 1 public institution in the world for autism research, according to the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, a federal advisory board.

After UNC, Pelphrey did work in brain imaging at Duke University and was teaching at Carnegie Mellon when Yale recruited him to join their Child Study Center to do autism research.

“It’s my dream job,” he says.

All of Pelphrey’s academic training has had a personal impact, and not only with his first child. His youngest son was born with signs of autism but received intensive treatment starting at age 14 months. Now six, his son no longer receives any services for autism and has been designated an optimal-outcome child.

“We never say cured,” says Pelphrey. “It’s not an appropriate term for autism. But there are no signs
that anyone can detect.”

Pelphrey hopes to have the grant renewed for another five years when it expires in 2017.

— Diana Smith

This article first appeared in the college's Accolades 2015 magazine.

April Student of the Month

Posted on April 17, 2015 7:14 am by dlleeder

Student of the Month Chris Stock

Student of the Month Chris Stock

Meet Christopher Stock, Humanities and Social Sciences Student of the Month

Hometown: Wake Forest, NC

Class: Freshman

Major: Political Science

Sample Courses:

  • International Relations
  • Mathematics of Finance
  • Elementary Chinese


  • Intern, North Carolina Republican Party, Spring 2015
  • NC State University Ambassador
  • Incoming president, Mock Trial Team
  • Member, Political Science Club
  • Member, Student Government Diversity Committee
  • Member, SPEL (Society for Economics, Politics and Law)
  • Assistant Chef, Hasentree Country Club (Wake Forest, NC)


Dean’s List, Fall 2014

Postgraduate Plans:

Law school, followed by a position in a District Attorney’s office.

What do you enjoy most about Humanities and Social Sciences?

How easy it is to get involved. There are so many opportunities out there, and the university makes it simple to find them. I got my current internship after reading about it in a college e-mail, and I have applied for other positions through ePack, the Career Development Center database. I have also enjoyed getting to know Professor Kathy Chen, who has been my Chinese instructor for two semesters. She is wonderful at teaching the language to native English speakers. The class size is only about 15 students, and meeting three times a week, we all talk informally and become very comfortable with each other.

What are some of your favorite Humanities and Social Sciences courses?

I enjoyed International Relations with Dr. Clifford Griffin, which allowed me to see foreign policy from more than an American perspective. I am currently taking The Justice System in the American Political Process online with Dr. Amanda Edwards. Dr. Edwards provides good opportunities to interact, even though it is a distance education course. I think I prefer the in-person learning environment, but this class is nonetheless opening my eyes to important concepts.

What has been your greatest challenge so far?

Definitely time management! I was very ambitious when I began here. I took 17 credit hours my first semester, and joined several student organizations. It is imperative to learn to balance your activities with your coursework and studying.

What advice would you give incoming students?

Put yourself out there. Keep an eye out for activities that appeal to you, and follow up! Attend an event, or send an internship application. Being involved is extremely important for networking, and for starting to build your resume early on.

History Weekend Asks: Climate Science -- Whom Do You Trust?

Posted on April 15, 2015 4:28 pm by Katie McCreary

history weekend climate change 2015Join us for NC State's History Weekend, when Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes will address the history of climate change, as well as climate skepticism in her keynote address, Climate Science: Whom Do You Trust? A Historian’s Perspective.

"NC State's Department of History plays a critical role in the discussion of climate change," says David Zonderman, interim head of the Department of History. "We need to understand our past -- including analyzing the historical context of these debates over science and public policy -- in order to make good decisions for our future."

Zonderman says Oreskes is "a leading authority on how the study of history can help us understand what is at stake -- politically and economically -- in the public debate over climate science and climate change."

Her interests include earth and environmental sciences, with a focus on understanding scientific consensus and dissent. Her most recent works include The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (2014) and Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global Warming (2010), both co-authored with Erik M. Conway.

Oreskes will speak on Saturday, April 18, at 10 a.m. at Withers Hall, on NC State's north campus. The three-day weekend of events related to Oreskes’ presentation begins with an April 16 showing of the film Disruption, a documentary on climate change. (Withers Hall 140, 7:00 p.m.)

History Weekend events are free and open to the public, but registration is recommended to reserve space.

Oreskes’ visit and the film are co-sponsored by the NC State Department of History, the Southeast Climate Science Center and the NC State Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

Gaining Confidence While Studying Down Under

Posted on April 14, 2015 2:38 pm by Lauren Kirkpatrick

Kianna Freitag made friends of all kinds when she studied in Australia.

Kianna Freitag made friends of all kinds when she studied in Australia.

Studying abroad allows students to apply their learning to the real world, as they gain first-hand experience with other cultures, languages, traditions and people. It also teaches students a lot about themselves as they navigate new, unfamiliar environments. This Q&A highlights how Humanities and Social Sciences students have incorporated study abroad into their undergraduate career.

Kianna Freitag is a senior majoring in Communication (Public Relations concentration) and minoring in Business Administration. Her study abroad in Australia during the Spring 2014 semester enhanced her cultural awareness, challenged her to navigate a new environment, and shaped her future goals.

What sparked your interest in study abroad?

I've always had an interest in Australia and a passion to travel. A "Pick a Country" project that I had done in the 6th grade--on Australia--was what initially sparked my interest; it just seemed like paradise! Fast forward to being in college for two years. I met a lot of Australian students who were abroad here at NC State. They really solidified my decision to learn as much about their country as I could first-hand.

Briefly describe your experience.

I chose the University of Wollongong, just south of Sydney. I lived in a dorm setting, suite-style, at Campus East. I was a two-minute walk from the beach and about a ten-minute bus ride from downtown and the university itself. I spent all of spring 2014 feeling like a freshman, being in a foreign atmosphere all over again, but it was one of the greatest experiences! Who doesn't love their freshman year?!

I took courses that transferred back toward my degree, and I think studying in a different country while still earning credits was one of the best aspects of my trip. Everything about classes, or "uni," as they call it, was different than here in North Carolina. It definitely strengthened my communication skills, and helped me to grow as a person.

How do you feel the study abroad related to your major, career, or personal goals?

Living abroad for six months helped me step out of my comfort zone and become who I am today. Everything about my trip was educational, so if your perspective of study abroad is like one long spring-break trip, think again! I used almost all my free time traveling as much of the country as I could. I visited cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, as well as some hidden areas such as Byron Bay or Noosa.

What are some things you learned?

I learned so much about Australia while being immersed in its culture. The country is beautiful, from the mountains of its countryside to its most pristine beaches. I met some wonderful people, and tried to bring back the Australian perspective on life. Constantly traveling and encountering new people gave me a new perspective too; I didn't think I had been sheltered, but after exploring a whole new world, I realized how much more is out there

What were some of the challenges?

One of the biggest challenges was when I was having a bad day, or just wanted a familiar voice to speak to, but the time difference between there and here is 14-16 hours. So it was really hard to reach someone back home without it being planned. I kept in touch with friends and family through my blog, e-mail, or planned Skype dates.

Additionally, I was abroad the second semester of junior year, when everyone back home was taking on internships, co-op opportunities and chair positions in clubs, all to put on their resumes. I felt a bit left out, or behind schedule. I had turned down the event coordinator chair for PRSSA the year prior, since I wouldn't be able to fulfill the role for an entire school year. It was hard to know my life back home was carrying on without me, as I made a new life for myself somewhere else. But that was the trade-off of choosing to do a study abroad program, and I believe I came out with better professional and life skills than those who hadn’t experienced foreign study.

What were some of the rewards?

The biggest reward was the feeling I got on my journey home. I felt so accomplished having just made it completely on my own for the last few months on the opposite side of the world! Of course I had a huge support system, but they were at least a 24-hour plane ride away. I traveled across the world, and then again all across Australia, all by myself. I moved to another part of the world and attended a different school in a very different culture. I made new friends, I ate new foods, I saw new places and animals ... The list goes on. It's still surreal today, as if it was one big dream.

In Memoriam: William Joseph Block (1918 - 2015)

Posted on April 9, 2015 7:00 am by Lauren Kirkpatrick

William J. Block

William J. Block

NC State’s Humanities and Social Sciences mourns the passing of former professor of political science and public administration William Joseph Block, who passed away on March 24, 2015. Block was a public administration expert who is credited with starting NC State’s Master of Public Administration program. During his long career at NC State (1957 – 1984), he chaired the Political Science Department and served as chairman of the NC State Faculty Senate. Known as an excellent professor and advisor, he was honored with the college’s first outstanding teacher award. Even after he retired in 1984, he continued to advise students for many years.

Off campus, Block educated and advised countless state employees, elected officials, judges and a former NC governor. He also worked tirelessly on his wife Miriam Block's five successful City Council campaigns; they shared an enthusiasm for many things, including excellence in local government, during the course of their 64-year marriage.

Block was a recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine. He wrote "Washington Hearing Aids," a column for the Agricultural Policy Review, for many years. Block was the author of numerous USDA Federal Extension Service pamphlets, brochures and articles. He also volunteered in community, church and school activities throughout his long and fruitful life, and enriched the lives of us all.

He is survived by his daughters Dr. Cheryl J. Block, Carla J. Block, and Christina J. Block Terrell, and their families. Cheryl Block is on the faculty of NC State’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures.

Memorial contributions may be made to SPCA of Wake County (200 Petfinder Lane, Raleigh, NC 27603), Fairmont United Methodist Church (2501 Clark Avenue, Raleigh), NCSU Friends of the Library (Campus Box 7111, Raleigh, NC 27695-7111), or Transitions LifeCare (250 Hospice Circle, Raleigh, NC 27607).

Read more about William Block's life and legacy at: