Infants with Siblings on the Autism Spectrum are more Likely to Repeat Tasks, Student Finds

The fact that, as of 2012, the prevalence of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) had increased from 1 in 150 children to 1 in 68, according to the CDC, is alarming. In response to that, BYU’s Family, Home, and Social Sciences college has sponsored a variety of programs, research, and events meant to cast more light on the effects of the disorder and on better treatments, some of which we discussed here, in our last issue of Connections. Perhaps of equal concern, though, is that some research demonstrates a possible connection between children who have a sibling with ASD and a higher risk of being diagnosed with the disorder.

BYU Psychology student and Fulton Conference participant Katherine Christensen, under the guidance of Dr. Rebecca Lundwall, found that “infant siblings of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder have higher perseveration,” meaning that these infants tended to redundantly or insistently repeat tasks more than infants who didn’t have siblings with ASD. The implications of this study for earlier diagnosis and intervention are big, says Katherine: “I hope that in the future, the computer task that we used in the current study could be used as a screening device that could discriminate between high- and low-risk populations for ASD. If the computer task is able to do so, it could potentially help with earlier diagnosis and intervention for children with a higher risk for developing attentional disorders. Earlier treatment allows for a better prognosis.”

Katherine Christensen’s Fulton poster


Katherine’s Connection

What made Katherine want to study ASD? In her own words, “I have grown up with a sister with developmental disabilities, and so the topic was interesting to me given my experience growing up with her.”

The Fulton Conference

Of her experience with the Fulton Conference, a college-wide event held every April highlighting students’ research projects, Katherine said: “I had a great time at the Fulton Conference. I am so grateful to be given the opportunity to get experience researching and presenting research in an open and friendly environment. I thank Dr. Lundwall for allowing me to be on her team and trusting me to present her research. It was neat to be able to see some of the other research in the FHSS school disciplines. I liked walking around and seeing and hearing from other students who are involved in research with other professors!”

Helping Families with ASD

In their 2005 book Helping and Healing our Families, professors Karen W. Hahne and Tina Taylor Dyches suggest the following, for those not affected by ASD who want to help those who are:

  • Offer respite care to families who are unable to attend church.
  • Provide transportation to church, activities, or other functions.
  • Ask parents of children with disabilities and service providers to give in-service training to auxiliary and priesthood leaders
  • Set high, rather than low, expectations for children with disabilities.
  • Express your love for the family, even if you cannot empathize fully.
  • Listen to parents’ concerns without judging their parenting skills.

How have you helped families affected by ASD?

Black and white feature image courtesy of Flickr.

Christina Riley: Fulbright Scholarship Recipient

Christina Riley, a recent BYU Applied Social Psychology doctoral candidate, has recently been awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship. With it, she intends to work in India, studying the likelihood of physical abuse in that country.  Her interest in helping resolve social justice issues like domestic violence effectively through prevention efforts is what drove her to apply for the scholarship, and what drives her research. She’s published five papers examining effective domestic violence prevention programs cross-culturally, as well as the social factors that contribute to domestic violence perpetration, as well as gender roles and obesity.

Who is Christina Riley?

Riley is a graduate of Baylor University with a degree in psychology and two minors in English and World Affairs. She came to BYU to pursue a PhD in psychology. While here, Riley has taught the online version of Intro to Psychology, Developmental Psychology: Lifespan, and a Peer Mentoring Capstone. She plans on going into “…into academia for research and teaching…[and]…to collaborate with international research agencies and NGOs focused on ending violence against women.”

What is a Fulbright Scholarship?

The scholarship that will be the catalyst for her dynamic research is one of many awarded by the J. Williams Fulbright Scholarship Board, whose members are all appointed by U.S. presidents. Each year, it gives around 1,900 grants and works in over 140 countries. It is administered overseas by bi-national commissions and U.S. embassies, who all work to increase mutual understanding between people of the U.S. and of other countries through exchange. In a time when both the physical and virtual worlds are more accessible that they have ever been, such increased, mutual understanding, acquired by as many students as possible, is perhaps more important than it has ever been. BYU’s College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences is not only proud of Christina, but interested in making sure that other students know about this great opportunity. To that end, the college hosted events in March to increase awareness and facilitate application preparations.

At that meeting on campus, Lee Rivers, an outreach specialist for the U.S. Student Fulbright Program and other international scholarship programs, encouraged students to consider applying for the next round of Fulbright scholarships, as the next deadline for applications will be in October 2017.  During their grants, Rivers said, Fulbrighters will meet, work, live with and learn from the people of the host country, sharing daily experiences.  “The program facilitates cultural exchange through direct interaction on an individual basis in the classroom, field, home, and in routine tasks, allowing the grantee to gain an appreciation of others’ viewpoints and beliefs, the way they do things, and the way they think. Through engagement in the community, the individual will interact with their hosts on a one-to-one basis in an atmosphere of openness, academic integrity, and intellectual freedom, thereby promoting mutual understanding.”

Other Students Are Encouraged to Apply

All of the following are encouraged to apply to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program:

  • graduating seniors and recent bachelor’s-degree recipients that have some undergraduate preparation and/or direct work or internship experience related to the project.
  • master’s and doctoral candidates who can demonstrate the capacity for independent study or research, together with a general knowledge of the history, culture, and current events of the countries to which they would like to apply
  • Young professionals, including writers, creative and performing artists, journalists, and those in law, business, and other professional fields   Competitive candidates who have up to 5 years of professional study and/or experience in the field in which they would like to apply will be considered. Those with more than 5 years of experience should apply to the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program.

More information on the scholarship program can be found at This programprovides grants for individually designed study/research projects or for English Teaching Assistant Programs.” The research will take place outside of the United States. Applications can be found here.

The Fulbright Scholarship

The Fulbright Scholarship was proposed in 1945 and signed into law by President Harry S. Truman in 1946. A student does not need to be currently enrolled in an institute of higher education to apply. They can apply for two kinds of grants, based on their desire to do independent research or study abroad, or to teach English abroad. Each grant funds 8 to 10 months of work. The grant funds round-trip airfare and provides a monthly stipend, as well as accident and sickness insurance and other possible benefits.


Featured image courtesy of Flickr.




Clinical Psychology PhD Receive Prestigious Post Docs in Pediatric Neuropsychology

Two BYU clinical psychology PhD graduates,  Ashley Levan and Ann Clawson, received prestigious post docs in pediatric neuropsychology.

Ashley Levan

Capturelkj;lkj;lkjLevan received her PhD in clinical psychology from BYU in 2016. Her dissertation research studied children with epileptic and non-epileptic seizures and learned how their social and executive functioning skills were affected by those seizures. Levan also researched social and cognitive functioning following traumatic brain injury in children.

Levan has practiced and researched at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Children’s National is a leading clinical and research institution, ranked best in the nation for children, and has been around since 1870.  Dr. Levan was accepted into the Pediatric Neuropsychology concussion and mild traumatic brain injury track.

As a postdoctoral fellow at Children’s National Medical Center, Levan’s clinical work focused on completing neuropsychological evaluations with children and adolescents with concussion, autism spectrum disorders, and additional neurodevelopmental and acquired conditions, according to Leesa Scott of the psychology department.  Levan also examines academic outcomes in pediatric concussion populations.

Ann Clawson


At BYU, Clawson graduated in the Clinical Psychology Doctoral program with an emphasis in neuropsychology. She continues her training as a postdoctoral fellow in pediatric neuropsychology at Kennedy Krieger Institute/Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Kennedy Krieger Institute is an internationally recognized facility dedicated to improving the lives of children and adolescents with pediatric developmental disabilities through patient care, special education, research and professional training.

In her post doc program, Clawson is developing skills and knowledge through working with a variety of children and youth in the oncology, genetic/congenital, and epilepsy clinics. Clawson is receiving specialized training in autism spectrum disorder. She continues her research in autism and am currently involved in a project examining neuropsychological outcomes in autism.

“I am incredibly grateful for my current opportunities, and for all those at BYU whose guidance and support have helped me succeed,” Clawson said.


We’re proud of the great work Doctors Levan and Clawson are doing to expand knowledge of pediatric psychology and development!

New Faculty Spotlight: Kat Green

Many people look at a crying child and see a nuisance. Kat Green sees a chance to make a difference.

A new professional track faculty member of the Psychology Department in BYU’s College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, Dr. Green is excited for the opportunities that her position will afford her to influence the lives of children. “While my focus is on teaching, mentoring, and training,” she said, “I am also committed to supporting ongoing research, particularly in my areas of specialization and more broadly in anything related to improving outcomes for children and families.”

child-538029_1280Dr. Green’s areas of specialization include childhood anxiety disorders, preschool disruptive behavior concerns, and clinical supervision–disciplines which can have a tremendous impact on the life of a child. “I am interested in collaborating with students and faculty across departments to find ways to improve assessment for young children,” she said, adding that the disseminating of research into community settings will be crucial for her work.

For Dr. Green, it’s all about the children. “I’ve always been interested in working with children and families and finding ways to disseminate information about evidence-based interventions to [them] . . . I find that working with kids allows me to be a part of a broader team, including parents, other caregivers, teachers, pediatricians, speech and language therapists, and many others to help promote children’s success,” she said. Dr. Green graduated from the Department of Psychology here at BYU, with a bachelor’s in 2009 and a PhD in 2014. From there, she spent time at the Texas Children’s hospital before making the transition to a faculty position at BYU over the summer.

“BYU has an excellent psychology department and graduate training program,” she said, citing the school’s excellence as a main factor in her decision to return to Provo. “I was excited to have an opportunity to teach and mentor alongside great faculty and help prepare students to pursue ongoing training in the field. Speaking of her students, she says: “I . . . work with a great group of students. [They’re] the best part about teaching at BYU. I am always open to visiting with any students about questions related to clinical child psychology,” she said, “whether it be questions about graduate school, training, research or career options.”

Dr. Green and her husband have one baby girl, eight months old, whom they describe as “fabulous.” The Green family enjoys doing anything together, especially if it’s outside–“until it gets too cold,” Dr. Green quipped. “[And] since we moved back from Houston, it feels too cold already.”


Check out more of our awesome new faculty here and here!

On Insomnia and Mood Disorders: Dr. Daniel Kay

Gayle Greene, author of Insomniac, describes her experience with insomnia: “I don’t manage this beast, I live with it. I live around it. I bed down with it every night, gingerly, cautiously, careful not to provoke it. I do my best to placate it, domesticate it, dull its claws, avoid its fangs, knowing that at any moment it can pounce on me and tear me to bits.”

kay-danielAccording to National Public Radio, sixty million Americans struggle with insomnia each year. Yet scientists know relatively little about its causes and cures; it is a relatively new field of study. Dr. Daniel Kay, the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences’ newest professor in the Psychology Department, has been researching sleep since 2003 with the aim of understanding the relationship between insomnia and mood disorders. He hopes it will lead to new preventative and therapeutic treatments for mood disorders and insomnia.

During his undergraduate at Washington State University, Dr. Kay studied the “local sleep hypothesis,” which is the idea that sleep is regulated in specific regions of the brain rather than across the entire brain. His senior project explored how regionalized sleep disturbance, or the inability of one part of the brain to sleep, related to mental illness.

Dr. Kay currently teaches Intro to Psychology, which he will also teach next semester.  He will teach Research Methods in Psychology next semester as well. He was raised in Independence, MO. He has been married to his beautiful wife, Janene, for 14 years and they have four children, ages 6-12.  If he has an hour of free time, he watches movies.

Welcome Dr. Daniel Kay!

Have you met another new faculty member, Dr. Jon Felt?

Do you have trouble sleeping?


Faculty News: Dr. Melissa Goates Jones, on Balance

The biggest surprise of Melissa Goates Jones’ life happened when she became a mother. “I found myself absolutely blown away by how much I loved being a mother,” she says on Aspiring Mormon Women. “I expected that I would have children because that’s what I ‘should do.’ I had no idea that being a mother would be something for which I felt a deep…longing.” As a career woman and a PhD, she says that this realization was “disorienting.” “Suddenly I was faced with feeling like my interest and passion was split between two important and exciting opportunities,” she says. Her traversal of that division has become, over the years, something she’s embraced. She teaches about women’s issues in their careers. She is also a new professor in our psychology department and a psychologist in private practice, where she helps many others seeking to find balance in their lives.

Jones, Melissa 1607-88 061607-88 Melissa Jones portraitPsycologyPhotography by Todd Wakefield / BYU© BYU PHOTO 2016All Rights  (801)422-7322
All Rights Reserved

To a certain extent, she says that finding balance may come for some by embracing the possibility that the perfect balance does not exist. “The stress I feel at arranging carpools, throwing together dinner for my family, and struggling to prepare for that early-morning lecture after the kids are in bed has become a testament to the privilege I enjoy of being able to arrange my life around the things I care for the most.”

In her role as a faculty member, she researches issues in women’s health, especially surrounding abuse and trauma. She looks at how the psychotherapy process and outcome affects women’s career development.  She leads a group for women survivors of sexual abuse.  Of that role, she says:

“Survivors will have a large variety of emotions, and those emotions will change and develop in the hours, days, weeks, months, and years following the assault. Recent research by Rebecca Campbell at Michigan State University suggests that survivors of sexual assault may respond in a variety of ways that do not always make sense to the observer because of how trauma affects memory, cognition, and emotion. These effects can last for 96 hours after the assault AND be evident whenever memory of the assault is triggered.”

She also teaches several psychology classes, and next semester she will teach an integrative psychology practicum as well as clinical research in psychology. She received her PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of Maryland after completing her undergraduate degree in from BYU. Professor Jones is from Canada, has been married to Marshall Jones for thirteen years, and has four children.


Study Shows Friends are Greater Than Phones for Weight Loss

There is no question that smart phones make things easier.  Daily tasks are more convenient because of these portable personal assistants.  But, there is fear that smart phones will eliminate the need to interact in person with others, and research already shows that smartphone usage can turn into an addiction which indeed harms interpersonal relationships. A recent study at BYU showed that usage of the device—for teens who are trying to lose weight, in particular—is in fact not sufficient. It is not a substitute for the support and accountability elements that real-life relationships provide.

Dr. Chad Jensen, FHSS psychology professor and director of BYU’s Pediatric Health Behavior Research Group, has been researching how to help teens lose weight for years.  His latest study reveals the importance of person-to-person support. “We know that teens are on their phones,” he says, “which gives us a way to intervene in the moment. We wanted to determine whether we could effectively use texting and a commercially-available smartphone app to help adolescents with weight loss.”  He provided an app called Daily Burn to help teenage recipients track their weight loss by recording exercise and food intake.

Photo by Jaren Wilkey of BYU

Weight Gain=App-Friends

Over twenty percent of teenagers are obese, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  The participants in Dr. Jensen’s study were all between the ages of thirteen and eighteen and had a body mass index that placed them in the eight-fifth percentile for height and weight, meaning that they were heavier than eighty-five percent of teenagers overall. For the first 12 weeks of the study, participants met face-to-face with a clinician and other peer participants to discuss their progress and motivations.  Three times a day, the clinicians texted encouraging messages to the teens. For the second 12 weeks, the teens no longer met in groups. They only received texts from the clinician.  Surprisingly, only 16.8 percent of teens recorded their progress in the app, a fifty-percent drop from earlier weeks. The teens also regained the weight they had just lost.  Although participants were able to lose weight during the in-person treatment, they were unable to maintain weight loss during the electronic-only intervention period.

Weight Loss=App+Friends

Losing weight can be a challenge because it requires persistence and time, which can wear us down.  That is why social support is crucial to helping teens loose weight. “The Daily Burn app doesn’t include all the things we know are successful for weight control,” he reported, “like social support and the accountability that comes with that support. That support existed when the teens were meeting with other teens and sharing their experiences.”

This study is one of the first to examine smartphone outcomes in the context of weight-control interventions for adolescents, and perhaps part of the arsenal of information parents and teens can use in their quests to live healthier lifestyles.

Are you sharing your goals with your friends? In person or on-line?

Christina Hibbert, Alum and Author

christi-pic-331x500Christina Grampp Hibbert always knew she wanted to be a mother—but she didn’t always plan on being a psychologist, speaker, and award-winning author. In fact, the BYU alumna (’95) changed her undergraduate major a couple of times before finally concluding that her calling was in the field of psychology.

“My first major in college at Brigham Young University was fashion design,” Hibbert recalled, “but after the first day of my first sewing class, I realized I can’t draw and I don’t love sewing!” This led her to tentatively land on Communications as a major, but tragedy struck at the beginning of her sophomore year when her youngest sister passed away. That, combined with the influence of a professor, prompted Hibbert to change majors one more time. She graduated three years later with a bachelor’s in psychology.

Now a clinical psychologist, public speaker, and radio show host, Hibbert recently launched her third book, “8 Keys to Mental Health Through Exercise,” a selection Publisher’s Weekly called “an enlightening and empowering instrument.” This book is meant for those struggling with mental illness or anyone hoping to gain the many mental and physical health benefits of frequent exercise. Her other publications are “Who Am I Without You? 52 Ways to Rebuild Self-Esteem After a Breakup” and her debut book, a best-selling and award-winning memoir entitled “This is How We Grow.”


“I honestly love what I do—all of it,” Hibbert said. “Connecting, learning, teaching, inspiring, helping, healing, offering hope, and loving greatly. It’s just a pleasant bonus that I somehow receive all of this back ten-fold in return. It’s my main motivation to overcome my challenges, to ‘choose to grow’ and become my best self, and to let my light shine and flourish!”

More important to Hibbert than any of her professional endeavors, though, is her family. She has been married to her husband, OJ, for over twenty years. Together, they have six children between the ages of eight and nineteen. This keeps her so busy that she’s come to call herself a “work-at-home mom”—writing, producing videos, and even seeing online clients from her home office while her kids are in school.

Hibbert’s road hasn’t always been easy. In 2007, as she was preparing to give birth to her fourth child, her sister and brother-in-law tragically passed away. Hibbert and her husband then adopted their two nephews.

“I’ve had my share of trials, especially when it comes to death, loss, and grief,” she said. “But I’ve learned that it’s exactly these hard times that have forced me to grow the most. They’ve led to who I am today, and to the opportunities I’ve been given to now help others through their trials and triumphs.”

Women are Less likely to Take Risks. But Why?

ma girl 2.jpg

When was the last time you took a risk?  Did you think long and hard about it – weighing all your options? Or was it a snap decision? Research shows that women are less likely to take risks than men. But the reason might be different than you think.

Hal Miller, professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University, has developed a new method of experimentation to measure the human emotional response to gains and losses in risk-taking and decision making. He found that women’s brains react more intensely to perceived gains and losses. However, this does not mean that women are necessarily more emotional, but that a woman’s emotional reaction to a loss is, on average, greater than her emotional reaction to a gain, when compared to men’s reactions.

ma girl 3.jpg

To illustrate this point, let’s imagine two scenarios:

1.) Imagine that you and I bet 100 dollars on the flip of a coin. You guessed heads and you won. The 100 dollars is yours. Do you want to keep the money? Or should we go double or nothing?

2.) Now, let’s change the scenario. You and I bet 100 dollars and you guessed heads. Sorry pal, you lost. Now, do you want to accept the loss and walk away? Or do you want to go double or nothing?

As humans, we dislike losing more than we like winning. That’s why the average person is more likely to try a double or nothing bet in scenario 2 than in scenario 1.

ma girl.jpg

New experimentation

In 2002, a man by the name of Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel prize for an explanation of this phenomenon, and how it applies to economics. It’s called prospect theory. In short, Kahneman concluded that we make decisions based on how we perceive our potential gains and losses. He also proved that we are more likely to avoid risks when there is a potential loss than when there is a potential gain.

“We actually have a pretty good idea of the ratio…or by how much people hate losing more than they love winning,” said Kahneman. He estimated that it was somewhere between a 2:1 and a 3:1 ratio.

Dr. Miller, through his new methods, has identified, via electroencephalogram (EEG) brain-wave technology, a more precise measurement of how much more we hate losing than we love winning. The average human ratio is 2:1, the reaction to a loss being greater.

The difference between Kahneman and Dr. Miller’s experimentation is that Kahneman measured people’s cognitive decision-making. Miller’s experiments, however, are strictly behavioral. They only measure the behavior in relation to the emotions experienced.

Further, “[The experiments used by Kahneman] were largely hypothetical,” says Miller, “whereas our experiments are in real time and real space; real loss and real gain.”

Are our Decisions More Determined than we Think?

It is possible, then, that human risk-taking is more determined than we think it is. It is possible that our experiences and emotions govern our decisions more than we would like to admit. The implications of Dr. Miller’s findings are interesting to consider.




Thinking About a Graduate Degree? Why Get it at BYU?

7658272558_aebe55277f_oWith all of the choices out there for graduate school, how are you possibly supposed to choose the right one for you?

Many prospective graduate students have found Brigham Young University to be an excellent selection for furthering their education.  BYU Graduate Studies recently spotlighted Kara Duraccio, a clinical psychology doctoral student from the Family Home and Social Studies college.

Kara has found her graduate experience at BYU to be very rewarding.  She explains, “I chose BYU because, when it came time to make a decision, I knew I was compatible with the people here.”

However, more than experiencing the notoriously positive and uplifting culture and atmosphere at BYU, Kara has also found great possibilities academically.  Speaking of her decision to attend BYU for graduate school, Kara says, “I knew the incredible research that was going on.  For me, it was a no-brainer.  I just knew I wanted to come here and continue the research I had already been working on.”

Since enrolling in her doctoral program, Kara has had the opportunity to work with Dr. Chad Jensen in researching childhood obesity.  In one of their most recent studies, they were able to explore how diet and physical reactions to food are affected by sleep deprivation.

The work that this research team has done in the labs could have a large impact on future practices for decreasing childhood obesity.  Kara explains that these studies have shown that “when we’re sleep deprived, we make unhealthy dietary decisions [and] we have a harder time controlling our impulses around high-calorie foods.”  The research group plans on tailoring their future interventions for helping kids lose weight to include more sleep recommendations because of these findings.

For Kara, the research that she has been able to do through the clinical psychology program has been very impactful.

Many other graduate students have also found BYU programs to offer an enriching and fulfilling experience for their graduate studies.  BYU Graduate Studies explains the unique opportunity that BYU holds for potential graduate students:

“We offer world class instruction from faculty mentors who genuinely care about both your professional and personal development as they challenge and expand your academic intellect using cutting edge pedagogical practices and technologies. Share your unique perspectives and engage in diverse dialogue with our faculty, university administration, and our student population who are represented from all across the nation and from all over the globe from more than 160 countries.”

Reflecting on her decision to attend BYU for graduate school, Kara concludes, “I haven’t regretted [the] decision.”


Pictures courtesy of Flickr.