Children love to hear stories. But Marina Simons '14 enjoys listening to the stories that children themselves tell, particularly kids with High Functioning Autism (HFA), specifically coherence and cohesion. Cohesion refers to the microstructure of a narrative and the specific details that are included; coherence is the overall structure of a narrative. She explains the focus of her Honors Thesis: "When people with autism speak, their narratives sound different. I am trying to find out what makes them sound different." Her research investigates whether or not children with HFA make clear references to their characters, show causal conjunctions for temporal sequencing such as using transition words, or words like “then,” to indicate sequence.
The North Reading, Massachusetts resident is completing a major in communication disorders and minors in psychology and education. She is also pursuing the Developmental Disabilities and Human Services Certificate. A Commonwealth Honors College student who has maximized her undergraduate career at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Simons is involved with the UMass chapter of the National Student Speech Language and Hearing Association (NSSLHA) through which she enhances academic knowledge and networks with her peers. She is also an active member of the Ballroom Dance Team where she learns a variety of ballroom dance techniques and competes in regional competitions.
During her junior year, Simons took a speech and language development course, taught by Assistant Professor of Communication Disorders Gwyneth Rost, on how children tell narratives. Inspired by the topic, Simons didn't hesitate when offered the chance to contribute research to this field. She recalls, "I began meeting with [honors adviser Mary Andrianopoulos] to discuss my academic requirements and I realized that she conducted a lot of research about children with autism, which was already one of my interests. Dr. A gave me the opportunity to help a doctoral student with her research during the fall of junior year."
Simons says this opportunity was her first insight into formal research in the communications disorders field. She had already acquired first-hand knowledge having an older brother who has Down Syndrome.
Simons is creating her own research tool for as part of her Honors Thesis. The specifics of the research tool are still developing, but she hopes the tool will effectively help analyze narratives of children with HFA. She says development of the tool has been a time-consuming task, and it has been challenging to get started, but understand that evolution and change are inevitable aspects of the two-semester project.
Simons’ advises other students to get to know their professors and their research interests. She says, “It is easy to work on a project that a professor is already working on or is interested in. Make sure you are very passionate about the topic you choose because you will be working on it for months!” Faculty are here to support honors students in their endeavors, and the Honors Thesis is a big task, but also a product with outstanding rewards for future success, as Simons demonstrates.
Simons aspires to be a speech language pathologist and wants to work with children who have disabilities. She explains that she knows the impact that speech language pathologists can have on families when a child has a disability. “Autism," she adds, "is such a mystery. I know how frustrated some families can feel when their child cannot fully communicate. I would love to help these families and make autism slightly less confusing and mysterious."
Autism currently affects one in 88 children and these children often experience speech and language developmental delays. According to Autism Speaks, Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability among children in the United States which means the need for speech therapists for this population is growing, too. Simons hopes that her Honors Thesis research will allow her to discover differences in the narratives of children with high functioning autism and integrate her findings into her future professional work.