Exploring ASD: A Conversation with Professor Helen Tager-Flusberg on Autism Research

BU Experts
5 min readApr 23, 2024


Dr. Helen Tager-Flusberg shares her experiences with BU’s Center for Autism Research Excellence, giving insights into the center’s research focuses and mission towards raising awareness of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

By Lydia Lu

In the realm of autism research, it is important to understand the intricate relationships between language, communication, and social-cognitive challenges. In bridging existing research gaps, researchers like Dr. Helen Tager-Flusberg are uncovering new insights into the multifaceted landscape of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Her efforts, alongside her colleagues at the Boston University Center for Autism Research Excellence (CARE), play a vital role in fostering transparency and pushing the boundaries of knowledge within the field.

Helen Tager-Flusberg is a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at BU’s College of Arts and Sciences. She also serves as the Director of CARE where her research focuses on language, communication, and associated social-cognitive deficits in autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. With CARE, she helps to drive their mission of unraveling the mysteries of autism to pave the way for enhanced understanding and support. Collaborating with organizations such as the Children’s Hospital Boston, MGH-Institute of Health Professionals, and the University of California Los Angeles, the Center investigates various research areas, including early diagnosis and developmental trajectories for infants at risk for autism.

In this Q&A, Dr. Tager-Flusberg shares insights from her research journey and the work of CARE, offering a glimpse into the complexities of autism and the dedication to making a difference in the lives of individuals and families affected by ASD.

Photo by Caleb Woods via Unsplash.

What are the main research priorities and goals of the Boston University Center for Autism Research Excellence (CARE)?

Our research falls into two areas: first to investigate the very early development of infants who are later diagnosed with autism using both behavioral and brain imaging measures; second, to study those autistic children who fail to acquire much/any spoken language, who comprise about 30% of the population.

What inspired your initial and continued involvement in CARE?

I began to study autism when I was in graduate school, focusing then, as now, on language development. I wanted to understand what was different about language in this population and why.

Is there a specific project or ongoing research initiative that has excited you or that you feel passionate about? Can you elaborate on it?

I love all my ongoing projects but perhaps I feel most passionate about our work on minimally verbal autism. This group of children (and adults) has been so neglected in past research, yet they clearly have the greatest needs. Over the past decade, we have been chipping away at learning more about their limitations in communication and some of the reasons why they fail to acquire spoken language.

What are some key findings or insights your research has uncovered regarding the connections between brain structure and function and cognitive/behavioral impairments in individuals with autism and related disorders?

Most of our work focuses on functional brain imaging, now using both electrophysiology (EEG) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). We (and others) have found that the brains of people with autism process language and other higher-order cognition differently — for example, they are more likely to process language using the right hemisphere. We have also learned that different brain regions involved in higher-order cognitive functioning, particularly language, are less well ‘connected’ in autistic people compared to non-autistic people. In our infant work, we have shown that these differences are evident in the first year of life.

Photo by Robo Wunderkind via Unsplash.

How do you integrate multidisciplinary approaches into your research programs, and what advantages does this bring to understanding autism and related disorders?

In our research, we use behavioral methods, eye-tracking, observational methods, linguistic analyses, and functional brain imaging (EEG, fNIRS). My students and collaborators come from various disciplinary backgrounds and together, we strive to piece together the larger puzzle of autism — linking behavioral patterns to one another, and to the neural processes that underlie these behaviors.

What are some of the obstacles you encounter when conducting research on autism and related disorders, and how do you work to address these challenges within your research programs?

Recruiting families to our work is one major challenge — these days few people have the time necessary to come to the lab to participate in our studies. We have tried to cope with this in a variety of ways — some studies we now conduct remotely; others we take our research to them (to the clinic, to their homes); and for those studies that we need the lab (e.g., fNIRS) we accommodate to the schedules that families prefer, seeing many children on weekends and holidays. A second challenge can be in collecting the data we need — for example, getting children to cooperate with our testing procedures, and tolerating the cap they must wear to collect brain data. We have developed several approaches to make our data collection procedures more fun, providing practice sessions etc. Our team is so well trained and truly outstanding in how they approach each and every child we recruit.

Does CARE collaborate with other institutions or organizations, to advance understanding and treatment of autism spectrum disorders? In what ways does CARE engage with the local community to disseminate research findings and promote awareness and understanding of autism and related disorders?

Our current projects are all collaborations with other universities — mostly Harvard (MGH-Institute of Health Professions; Boston Children’s Hospital) and UCLA. We are closely connected with several schools and other community organizations and provide updates on our work on a regular basis.

What do you envision as the future directions or priorities for research in autism and related disorders, and how does CARE aim to contribute to these areas of study?

There are many future directions for autism research. I expect that both of our priority areas (infants; minimally verbal) will continue to be important areas as we still have so much to learn. At this point, CARE is beginning to wind down. I officially retired from BU in January and am now continuing as Professor Emerita. I continue to run CARE and we still have our current grant-funded projects that will continue for the next 5 years. But we aren’t taking on new areas — there are so many talented scientists who are now in the field and I look forward to following the field through their creative directions!

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on X at @BUexperts. Check out Professor Helen Tager-Flusberg on her website or @HelenTager. Stay in tune with CARE via their website. For research news and updates from Boston University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, check out their website or @BU_CAS.



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