Leading the Vanguard: Carissa Cascio

Carissa Cascio smiling

Carissa Cascio, Ph.D., is a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Investigator and associate professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences. Her work focuses on the neural basis of sensory processing differences in children and adults with autism. She uses a combination of sensory testing and neuroimaging to investigate how different kinds of sensory processing are disrupted in autism, and what role that disruption may play in the core features of autism such as decreased socialization, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors.

In the interview below, Cascio shares what inspires her research in developmental disabilities, what she’s learned through her work, and how membership with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center helps her achieve her goals.

Tell me about your attraction to developmental disabilities research. Do you have a personal connection to disability?

My first real experience with developmental disabilities was as a babysitter in high school. I was doing a term paper on the topic of autism and asked a family friend whose 5-year-old daughter was on the spectrum if she would be willing to do an interview for my paper. She agreed, on the condition that I babysit for her three girls. Long after my paper was done, I was regularly babysitting for their family. Their daughter Catherine’s autism was one of the most textbook examples I have seen even to this day. She did not speak, but you could easily see her quick mind working and driving her to focus with incredible intensity on things that she clearly saw differently than the rest of us. I can trace my curiosity about what the world looks like through the eyes of people with autism to those experiences helping to take care of her.

What are your current research interests and what challenges do they address?

My current research interests are centered on how individuals with autism perceive their own bodies, and whether and how that perception influences their social challenges. We get so much social and emotional information from our physical bodies—whether through the sense of touch, the sense of proprioception (where the body is in 3D space), or sensory signals from the inside of our bodies, such as those that arise from heartbeats, breathing, or pain. This is especially true very early in life, when we know that brain differences in people with autism begin to emerge. I’m interested in understanding how all that information is handled by the brain, the similarities and differences in that process for people on and off the autism spectrum, and how that influences core and associated features of autism.

Do you have a story that illustrates the impact of your work?

One of the areas we focus on is how people with autism experience and communicate pain. This work is being led by Dr. Michelle Failla, a postdoc in our lab. We recently published Michelle’s findings suggesting that even when we can’t measure a behavioral difference in reactions to pain, we see very different patterns of responses throughout the brain. We heard from people on the spectrum who felt very validated by this line of research, having the “sense” that their experiences are different from many others but not knowing why. One person even expressed feeling at higher risk of serious injury because she often won’t realize an injury has occurred until she sees blood, rather than the sensation of pain alerting her to danger. While this isn’t the experience of everyone with autism or other developmental disabilities, I think knowing there are clear differences in the way the brain represents the body is helpful in that way… and, with more study, we believe the impact will go beyond personal validation to personalized intervention to improve the lives of people with autism.

What are your reasons for becoming a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Member?

The Kennedy Center enhances what I do in so many ways, from connecting me with fantastic collaborators, to educating me about the latest statistical approaches, to continually reminding me of the daily reality of the people I hope to help with my research. The resources and the community we have at the VKC make all of us better scientists and keep us focused on what is important. 

Elizabeth Turner is associate director of VKC Communications.

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