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Published: 22 Jan, 2021

Understanding our first language

PROFILE Erik Domellöf, docent of psychology, studies the motor development of children, both in children with and without disabilities. For his achievements, he has been awarded the Wallenberg Academy Fellow prolongation grant, and will hence receive funding for another five years from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

Text: Elin Andersson

Studying motor skills can be seen as an unusual activity for a psychologist, but if you ask Erik Domellöf, motor skills are an important part of children’s development. There are exciting connections between early motor milestones and development of not least cognitive and social skills.

“Studying the link between these behavioural domains in general is vital, but may be even more important in terms of children with disabilities, says Erik Domellöf. “Motor behaviour is our first ‘language’ so to speak, and learning more about children’s motor behaviour is important to develop early diagnostics and improved interventions.”

“I’m particularly interested in the link between the brain’s structure and function and the behaviour of children and adolescents. Motor difficulties are common both in children born prematurely and in children with autism. This is often linked with early impacts on brain development and/or variations in the activation of brain networks,” Erik Domellöf continues.

Learning more about children’s motor behaviour is important to develop early diagnostics and improved interventions.

Already during his undergraduate education, Erik Domellöf found an interest in developmental psychology and neuropsychology. He completed his degree project within the scope of a project studying head movements in babies. During his doctoral studies, he continued to look into aspects of motor development in babies and infants. As a clinical psychologist, he has also been active in the habilitation service for children with disabilities.

Predictive ability in children with autism

In the upcoming five years, Erik Domellöf will continue to investigate the ability to foresee what will happen next. This so-called predictive ability is something he will study in children and adolescents with autism, and compare with non-disabled equivalents.

“This research will be a kind of independent continuation of my previous project Children and motor planning, CHAMP. In our project, we will focus on somewhat older children and among other methods use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the activation patterns of the brain when these children plan and carry out a motor act. Problems with predictive abilities in children with autism could be a reason behind both motor issues and more well-known social and communicative problems,” says Erik Domellöf.

“This is an opportunity to add unique knowledge about brain functions linked to performing a task that sets demands on predictive abilities. I’m thrilled and honoured to have received a prolongation of my Wallenberg Academy Fellowship as it signifies a form of proof that my research is deemed important.”

It’s an honour and privilege to meet and work with these children in the lab.

Erik Domellöf studies children using intricate technology, such as various forms of advanced methods of registering movement. Children’s ability and desire to participate is therefore important factors to consider.

“It’s an honour and privilege to meet and work with these children in the lab. But simultaneously, it offers challenges. Small children are not always interested in doing exactly what you have in mind, and the same goes for children with attention deficit or hyperactivity. In my research team, we spend a lot of time preparing the children prior to visiting the lab. The child is always the centre of our attention. We offer snacks and a token gift, and in general aim for our young participants to enjoy taking part.”

“Another challenging factor is that the technology generates data that is so complex and time-consuming to process that it takes a long time between data gathering and publication of results. And additionally, we often discuss various ethical aspects when gathering data to make sure that everything is done correctly and that contributing families feel satisfied,” says Erik Domellöf.

A genuine interest is the key to success

So how can you maintain stringency and relevance in your research when the funding period spans across an entire decade? Erik Domellöf highlights curiosity, commitment and interdisciplinary collaboration as important features.

“My greatest propelling force is that I genuinely enjoy what I’m doing. I find it enthralling, fun and significant both from a theoretical and clinical perspective,” he says. “But if I was to give one advice to a researcher in the early stages of his or her career, I would probably urge the researcher to seek national and international collaborations. I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by rewarding collaborations both within my research group, between the group and clinical professionals, as well as between the group and other national and international research groups studying similar aspects. There is also an evident interdisciplinary exchange of knowledge in our work, which is something I cherish and find very fruitful.” 

In the future, Erik Domellöf hopes that his research will help children with disabilities to have an easier and more well-functioning everyday life by improving and customising measures to individual purposes to a greater extent than presently.

“I wish to contribute with new knowledge on development of predictive ability, if this development is proven to differ in children with autism, and in that case what signifies this difference. That is to say, not to just state that a child struggles with their predictive ability, but in what way these issues are manifested,” says Erik Domellöf.

“Also, particularly when it comes to children with autism, there is a vast variation in function and behaviour both between children, but also in the performance of the same task by the same child. This puts high demands on the detail of our investigations in order to better provide knowledge that can aid in achieving more precise, customised supportive measures when a disability makes everyday life troublesome. I hope that the advanced technology used in our investigations can be a step in the right direction,” he concludes.