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Marie Moore Channell

A Few Minutes With Marie Moore Channell

AHS media relations specialist Vince Lara speaks with Dr. Marie Moore Channell of the Speech and Hearing Science department to discuss her research on how language and communication skills develop in children with Down Syndrome and her plan to increase awareness of autism spectrum disorder in individuals with Down Syndrome.

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VINCE LARA: Hi, and welcome to another edition of A Few Minutes With, the podcast that showcases Illinois' College of Applied Health Sciences. I'm Vince Lara, and today I'll speak to Dr. Marie Moore Channell of the Speech and Hearing Science Department, who talks about her research on how language and communication skills develop in children with Down syndrome and her plans to increase awareness of autism spectrum disorder in individuals with Down syndrome.

All right, Dr. Channell, thank you for joining me on this edition of A Few Minutes With. And I typically ask all the guests on the show what led you to Illinois. So what led you here?

DR. MARIE MOORE CHANNELL: OK. Thanks for having me.


DR. MARIE MOORE CHANNELL: Well, the goal of my research is to have a positive impact on the lives of individuals with disabilities. So for me the University of Illinois was a natural fit. This university and our College of Applied Health Sciences in particular has really paved the way for innovative strategies for supporting individuals with disabilities. So that was one reason.

And then, also within our department of speech and hearing science, the department is consistently one of the top speech language pathology programs in the country. So it has a great reputation. But also, the interdisciplinary approach to understanding and working with people with communication disorders, I thought that was really important. Because I think that our fields, our sort of subfields of expertise, really need to think about how we can work together to collectively have a stronger impact on the lives of people with disabilities.

VINCE LARA: Speaking of your research, typically there's something in a researcher's past that leads them-- some sort of inspiration that led you to study what you study. What was it for you?

DR. MARIE MOORE CHANNELL: Oh, yes. For me, it was my brother. So my brother has a rare genetic disorder that causes intellectual disability. It's not Down syndrome, but kind of like that, in that it causes intellectual disability and causes challenges with communicating. And so I think growing up with him and his peers really made me aware of the needs of individuals with different kinds of disabilities and their families. And so I knew I wanted to make a positive impact on their lives. And that's really what led me to this field.

VINCE LARA: Now, when you started out, did you think about research first or teaching? Did you say to yourself, I want to be a teacher? Like, was there something about that profession?

DR. MARIE MOORE CHANNELL: I really didn't think specifically about teaching or even research. I was really focused on the population that I wanted to work with.


DR. MARIE MOORE CHANNELL: And I was able to, as an undergraduate student, get involved in a research lab. And that's where I realized that I liked research, and that I was good at it, and wanted to do it. And so, I realized that research was a way for me to help this population of children with disabilities. And I also got some teaching experience in graduate school and realized how much I really also like to shape the lives of students and future professionals and that teaching is a great avenue for that

VINCE LARA: Where'd you do your undergrad work and your grad work?

DR. MARIE MOORE CHANNELL: Oh, both actually at the University of Alabama.

VINCE LARA: Oh, OK. Great. Well, you mentioned that your research does focus primarily on development of language and other skills for people with Down syndrome, and you talked about your brother. One of your goals is to raise awareness of the autism spectrum disorder for people with Down syndrome. How do you propose to do that?

DR. MARIE MOORE CHANNELL: That's a great question. So I think we can learn a lot from the greater autism community. So I think, as a whole, the autism community over the past several years has done a great job of advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and also for really raising public awareness of what autism looks like, some early signs and symptoms, so that people who may require more support can get services earlier and sort of the importance of early intervention. I think we can take that sort of as a model for what we need in Down syndrome.

What I think is a challenge in Down syndrome is that it carries this stereotype of people with Down syndrome are so social, and friendly, and always happy, and while certainly there are a lot of positive attributes to people with Down syndrome, I think that, just like all of us, people with Down syndrome have a range of emotions and a range of ability levels. And so they can also have autism. And so I think that's going to be the challenge in sort of raising awareness and thinking about even understanding that someone with Down syndrome can have autism also.

And actually, the current research evidence suggests that autism is about at least five times more likely in someone with Down syndrome than in the general population.

VINCE LARA: That's interesting. And you've said now, for individuals with Down syndrome, failing to provide early intervention for the autism spectrum disorder can have long-term consequences. I'm wondering what those would be.

DR. MARIE MOORE CHANNELL: Well, of course I'm going to say a lot more research is needed, but I would say that the current evidence points toward more cognitive difficulties, less developed language skills, and fewer adaptive skills, which is sort of skills that are needed to function independently in everyday life, in children who have Down syndrome and autism than in those who have Down syndrome only. And we know broadly, from developmental research, that the sooner you intervene and find learning strategies that work for a child, the more opportunities that child has to develop skills that will support their learning and their long-term sort of day-to-day function and independent living.

So if they have Down syndrome and they also have autism, they may need different strategies early on that kind of set them up for success long term.

VINCE LARA: You know, I'm curious about your intellectual disabilities communication lab. Tell me what projects you have going on there.

DR. MARIE MOORE CHANNELL: Sure. So my primary project right now examines how children with Down syndrome apply their cognitive, language, and social emotional knowledge to social interaction, specifically looking at how they understand and communicate their understanding of other people's mental states. That's how they understand, and interpret, and talk about people's emotions, their thoughts, their intentions, et cetera. And that's really something that we call mental state language.

And through a grant funded by the NIH while here at Illinois, I was actually able to collect samples of school-aged children with Down syndrome telling stories. And from those stories, we recorded the stories, and we can go back and sort of cull them for four content later, and we were able to see the different kinds of mental state language that they're using in their stories. And that's really important, because there's so much variability from one child to the next, just like any child.


DR. MARIE MOORE CHANNELL: But in kids with Down syndrome, you also see a lot of variability. So we are interested in finding out what may help explain why some kids with Down syndrome were using a lot of mental state language in telling these really engaging stories and others were not. And so far we've seen that it's not about their IQ, and it's not about how old they are. It is, of course, about, partially, at least, their general language abilities-- so their other vocabulary and grammar skills-- but also about their emotion knowledge.

So the kids who are more able to recognize other people's emotions are also then able to talk about emotions and use mental state language in their conversations, and empathize with others, and use that kind of language in their narratives and their storytelling. So we have a lot to do. But the early results, I think, really do suggest that we should focus on emotion knowledge and not just sort of traditional language when working with this population to improve their communication.

VINCE LARA: Can you explain a little bit about what mental state language is?

DR. MARIE MOORE CHANNELL: Sure. So it's really when we are able to talk about or discuss our emotions. And so when we're able to basically put our emotions into words, instead of just maybe sort of acting out and not really completely articulating that, so able to articulate our own emotions, but also actually being able to recognize other people's emotions, and sort of what they're thinking, and we call it perspective taking sometimes-- so being able to kind of put themselves in someone else's mental shoes is also really important.

And we do that when we communicate-- we empathize. I can tell you're feeling really angry, can we talk about this, for instance. And that's really what mental state language is.

VINCE LARA: Interesting. Now, as we are in R1 facility, so research is always top-of-mind. I'm sure you have projects going on. Are there any that you particularly want to talk about that are in the pipeline for you and maybe close to finished manuscript?

DR. MARIE MOORE CHANNELL: Sure. I have to choose which of those to discuss, right?

VINCE LARA: That's usually what happens. Yeah.

DR. MARIE MOORE CHANNELL: I guess I'll start going back to the mental state language study.


DR. MARIE MOORE CHANNELL: So really those are preliminary findings that I talked about that are accepted for publication in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. But I have some other papers in the pipeline. We actually-- these were school-aged children with Down syndrome-- in addition to getting samples of their storytelling, we also had them sit down with their mothers and go through a story book together and recorded how their interact and converse with them during that sort of shared storybook time. And so we have a lot to do with analyzing-- we still need to analyze sort of what kinds of things a mother say and do that may help sort of facilitate mental state understanding and mental state language in their children. So that's one.

And then I would say the other two kind of big projects that are stemming from this, one is-- you already mentioned it earlier-- this idea of raising awareness of autism and down syndrome. So with my research I'm always collecting measures of sort of autism symptoms in the individuals with Down syndrome that I'm studying, so that I can report on what they look like. And ideally, over time, we can figure out sort of what autism exactly looks like and what may be some signs of autism in individuals with Down syndrome. Because, like I mentioned earlier, it is challenging to identify when someone already has some communication difficulties.


DR. MARIE MOORE CHANNELL: So that's another line of research. And then, long term, really, all of this-- if the goal of this research really is to not only improve communication but really improve sort of day-to-day functioning and independent living long term for this population, I'm really interested in looking sort of beyond the school age years that transition from high school to independent living in the community. That's something that is really grossly understudied in Down syndrome.

And we do a lot in the schools to provide services for these individuals while they're there and to kind of try to set them up for the next steps, but then we don't really know what happens after that. And so I would also like to use my research to track that. And through that, actually, I've established a collaboration with Dr. Meghan Burke in the department a special education here on campus and Dr. Susan Loveall-Hague at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where we've put together a survey so that we can more broadly sort of describe what's happening.

And we put together a survey for caregivers of young adults with Down syndrome who are in that transition phase, just to get sort of a first pass of what's going on with these families. We know that caregivers do a lot to support their young adults during this time, and just to kind of represent their voice, and figure out where we need to go next with our research.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Dr. Channell. For more podcasts on Illinois' College of Applied Health Sciences, search A Few Minutes With on iTunes, Spotify, iHeart Radio, and other places you get your podcast fix. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.

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