Observational methodologies, neuroimaging techniques and physiological signal analysis are the basis of the research conducted by the ODFLab (Observation Diagnosis and Training Lab), a national centre of reference for research and clinical activity on the diagnosis and treatment of autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) and of specific learning disorders. ODFLab is part of the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Science of the University of Trento.
The laboratory conducts research, clinical activity (including diagnosis and treatment) and training in the areas of typical and atypical neurodevelopment, of social-emotional difficulties, and of special educational needs. At both local and national level, the laboratory also undertakes consultancy and provides prevention programs to support parenting and to foster educational inclusion.
ODFLab’s research ranges from the study of early indicators of Autism Spectrum Disorder to the structure of family relationships with typical and atypical subjects, using both observational analysis and neuroimaging tools. New interdisciplinary approaches include the detection of physiological responses using sensors and the study of typical and atypical developmental trajectories in relation to genetic and metagenomic profiles. In the area of Specific Learning Disorders, the laboratory collaborated with the InterAction research group from the Department of Information Engineering and Computer Science to produce “Skies of Manawak”, a videogame in which the various training activities were decomposed into their structural components, translated into game mechanics and then reassembled as mini-games. The research in this area aims to develop innovative interventions through computerized training to strengthen executive functions. Particular attention is paid to identifying the factors that can lead to the intervention being successful, such as motivation, the child’s self-esteem and the compliance of the parents.
The results of the research support the clinical activities of the laboratory. Both the diagnostic activities and the rehabilitative, intensive and early interventions are structured in a way that includes everyone involved with the child, both at home and at school. This intervention, whose data is part of trialling the “Italian model for intervention with children with ASD”, uses the technique of video feedback to give the adults who interact with the child a better understanding of some of their behaviours. The success of the intervention is monitored by assessing the achievement of periodically defined micro-objectives and through systematic measurements that enable to evaluate the efficacy of the intervention. The laboratory also uses music therapy to strengthen the relational and social skills of children and adolescents with ASD. An innovative type of clinical activity is the project “Therapy on Holiday”, a 15 day intensive rehabilitation camp for children with ASD aged 2 to 8 years. During the camp, specific methods for working with children with ASD are used which are in line with various international studies and which all the ODFLab staff are trained in. As well as offering an intensive rehabilitative intervention, holding a summer camp in a popular holiday area surrounded by nature offeres families the chance to enjoy some holiday relaxation while their children are doing the undertaking therapy.
ODFLab is part of the “autism project”, which started in 2010 and aims to offer an innovative model of professional development in schools: productive educational paths are created for children with ASD in schools through the construction of a stable institutional network that can guarantee the necessary support, training and human resources. The laboratories training activities focus on models of intervention, rehabilitation methods that have been studied and trialled in the laboratory. Particular attention is paid to methodologies for the inclusion of children with special educational needs. The laboratory also runs services for students of the University of Trento: the Psychological Counselling Service, the University Service for Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD) and the Neurodiversity Support Service. Another service that the Laboratory runs is the Parenting Support Service for University employees, to provide support to patents facing problems with their children aged 6 to 18 years.
The team at the Laboratory, headed by Paola Venuti, consists of 30 university staff, researchers, and freelance professionals, as well as 33 interns. ODFLab works with other organizations in the region, including Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FBK), the Provincial Institute of Educational Research and Experimentation (IPRASE) and the Department of Information Engineering and Computer Science of the University. It also participates in the Trentino Autism Initiative (TRAIN) project and works with social cooperatives in the region and with the Trentino Autism Foundation. At the national level the Laboratory is part of the Italian Network for the monitoring of children at risk of autism (NIDA) and works with the Italian National Institute of Health (ISS) the Bambino Gesù Pediatric Hospital in Rome and the IRCSS Stella Maris research and treatment institute in Pisa. Finally, at the international level, the laboratory works with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda (USA).