2015 Research Findings

The following studies were published in 2015. The grants awarded by ASF to fund these studies may have been distributed in years prior to 2015.

Concerns of parents and teachers of children with autism in elementary school

Gazi Azad and David Mandell interviewed parents and teachers of individuals with autism in school to communicate their concerns.  They examined whether parents and teachers agree, and whether or not they discussed them with each other.

As it turns out, parents and teachers generally agreed about their primary and secondary concerns. When given an opportunity to communicate their concerns, 49% of the parent–teacher dyads discussed problems that neither reported as their primary concern, and 31% discussed problems that neither reported as their primary or secondary concern. These findings suggest that interventions should target parent–teacher communication, rather than agreement, to facilitate home–school collaboration.

Measuring Sensory Reactivity in Autism Spectrum Disorder:Application and Simplification of a Clinician-Administered Sensory Observation Scale

Sensory reactivity is a new DSM-5 criterion for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Tessa Tavassoli and colleagues at the Seaver Center in NYC validated a clinician-administered sensory observation in ASD, the Sensory Processing Scale Assessment (SPS). The SPS and the Short Sensory Profile (SSP) parent-report were used to measure sensory reactivity in children with ASD (n =  35) and typically developing children (n =  27).  In this way, parent reported sensory issues and clinician observed sensory issues could be compared.

Sixty-five percent of children with ASD displayed sensory reactivity symptoms on the SPS and 81.1 % on the SSP. SPS scores significantly predicted SSP scores. The results indicate that a combination of parent-report and at least the five most differentiating observational tasks may be most sensitive in identifying the presence of sensory reactivity issues.

Re-conceptualizing ASD Within a Dimensional Framework: Positive, Negative, and Cognitive Feature Clusters

The NIH recently introduced the idea of Research Domain Criteria, rather than diagnostic criteria for mental disorders and illness.  This would allow classification of ASD based on symptoms rather than a “yes” or “no” diagnosis.  This research team, led by Jennifer Foss-Feig at Yale, applied this concept as it applied to schizophrenia to autism.  In schizophrenia, the symptoms are based on presence or absence of symptoms or behaviors as well as cognitive dimensions.  They argue that using this system can better to classify, diagnose, and treat autism symptoms.  They suggest the proposed conceptualization can advance the field in a manner that may prove clinically and biologically useful for understanding and addressing heterogeneity within ASD.

Sex differences in cortical volume and gyrification in autism

Dr. Aarthi Padmanabhan at Stanford University leveraged an open-access brain imaging data exchange to compare the differences between males and females with autism in brain structure and size.  They found bigger temporal cortexes and ventromedial prefrontal cortexes in females with autism.  Power analyses showed that these difference would have been missed in studies with smaller numbers.  

Prospective MEG Biomarkers in ASD: Pre-Clinical Evidence and Clinical Promise of Electrophysiological Signatures

While autism has biological underpinnings and different etiologies across individuals, these features are different from person to person.  Abiologically based marker (biomarker) could prove useful not only for diagnostic and prognostic purposes, but also for stratification and response indices for treatments. In this review, Russell Port at the University of Pennsylvania examines the current state of the field for use of brainwave activity-related biomarkers in ASD.  These are measured by the time difference between an observation and a brain response, when the brain responses do not match up, and other brainwaves and their relation to symptomology, core domains of dysfunction (e.g., language impairment), and putative biological under- pinnings. The study is open access and can be found through the link above.

Moving from capstones toward cornerstones:  successes and challenges in applying systems biology to identify mechanisms of autism spectrum disorders.

Another way to identify biological differences and help explain behavioral variability in people with autism is through looking at gene sequence gene expression, and networks of genes and proteins.Nathan Kopp reviews the recurrent themes emerging from these analyses and highlight some of the challenges going forward. They  include findings that ASD associated genes are grouped together and focus on processes like  neurite outgrowth/cytoskeletal, synaptic, and chromatin modifying genes.  They control fetal brain development and axon signaling.  Now that the functions of these genes are better understood, the next step is to use this knowledge towards treatment strategies.

Toward Optimal Outcome Following Pivotal Response Treatment: A Case Series

There is a growing literature on children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who respond favorably to behavioral treatment, which is often termed “optimal outcome.” Rates and definitions of optimal outcome vary widely. This project, led by Pam Ventola at Yale, describes an empirically validated behavioral treatment approach called Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT). They  present two preschool-aged children who received an intensive course of PRT and seem to be on a trajectory toward potential optimal outcome. Understanding response to treatment and predictors of response is crucial, not necessarily to predict who may succeed, but to individualize medicine and match children with customized treatment programs that will be best tailored to their unique and varied needs.