2020 Grantees

COVID-19 Research Grants

Hannah Rea, PhD | University of Washington
Shalini Sivathasan | Emory University

Measuring the validity of new virtual autism assessments

The sudden change from in- person assessments to telehealth delivered diagnosis provided much needed support to families during the pandemic, but the urgency of assessment meant there has been little time to determine the validity of these measures or get family feedback regarding these changes. Researchers at University of Washington and Emory will collaborate and combine their resources to examine these new assessment practices in both children and adults with ASD. The goal is to determine what changes should be continued and which need to be further improved, ultimately helping clinicians conduct ASD assessments virtually.

Marika Coffman | Duke University

Mentor: Geraldine Dawson, PhD

Mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on children with ASD

Parents of children with ASD have reported huge changes in psychiatric and behavioral problems in their children over the course of the pandemic. To date, there has been no research on who is most vulnerable and what causes the biggest changes in adaptive behavior. This study will expand an existing project examining mental health issues in families with ASD by tracking families’ pre- pandemic through mid-pandemic to determine what contributes to the elevated anxiety, ADHD and challenging behavior, and how loss of services during the pandemic may have exacerbated these issues. The findings will help inform future efforts to understand who is most susceptible to mental health issues andwhat contributes to resilience.

Pivot Grants

Jacquelyn Moffitt | University of Miami

Home-based measurements of ASD features

The Covid-19 pandemic has created both a challenge and an opportunity for home observations of ASD-related behaviors. Clinicians do not normally have the opportunity to observe children in their homes. On the other hand, as children can no longer come to clinics, researchers have to rely on telehealth and technology to collect information from children about social communication behaviors while the children are home. Through pivot funding, researchers at the University of Miami will be able to provide families with a language recorder as well as a video camera to collect and analyze information in a virtual way, and even do so for a longer period of time than might have been done in – person. This will tell researchers where the child is looking, what they are saying, how often they are babbling or talking, and other social communication measures. This project will both allow researchers to continue to collect data from follow up visits during an ongoing study, and also provide information about the utility and accuracy of newer technology which might be more widely utilized due to social distancing restrictions.

Jenny Root, PhD, BCBA | Florida State University

Virtual video-based math instruction

Mathematical skills are critical for postsecondary success in people with ASD. Unfortunately, there are very few math curriculums developed for people on the spectrum. For those that do exist in special education, they may not be able to be used as is because the schools will not be open or they will be on a modified schedule. Dr. Root and her colleagues have been working towards a program which improves problem solving skills. They will adapt this program from being fully teacher-delivered to partially caregiver-delivered using video modules. The funding will allow the study of this intervention to continue, as well as study the efficacy of the online program for future use. They will also better understand how teachers, support staff, parents and individuals on the spectrum who receive the intervention like it.

Sandra B. Vanegas, PhD | Texas State University

Ensuring Access to Technology for Low-Resource Families Participating in Autism Studies

Few autism studies have focused on the unique needs of culturally diverse families in low-resource households.  The ASD Screening and Parent ENgagement (ASPEN) intervention program has been developed to help parents develop skills to address challenges in communication, socialization, and difficult behavior.  Unfortunately, due to social distancing measures and closure of access centers for families, this intervention will now need to be delivered remotely.  Many families participating in this study don’t have access to computers, tablets or the internet. This grant will provide equipment to disadvantaged families in Texas to ensure they can continue to participate. It will also enable researchers to evaluate the effectiveness of this telehealth intervention.

Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, MD | University of Alberta

Converting In-Person Visits to Virtual Assessments

Longitudinal studies that track the same children from birth through adolescence have revolutionized our understanding of early detection and intervention delivery, and have improved the long-term outcomes of children with ASD.  Because of the pandemic, assessments that provide information to both researchers and families need to be adapted to accommodate social distancing protocols. This grant will allow data collection to continue on a cohort of children from which significant information has already been collected.  It will also provide additional funding to families to compensate them for their increased effort.

Undergraduate Summer Research Grants

Alana Eiland | Yale University

Mentor:  James McPartland, PhD

Isolating and Understanding Biomarkers of Anxiety in Adults with ASD

Children, teens and adults with autism often are also diagnosed with anxiety. In this study, Ms. Eiland will look at brain activity in adults with ASD, anxiety, and in those with both diagnoses, to try to find biological signatures for each condition. The results of this research could better inform treatment options for anxiety in autistic adults.

Nat Finnegan | University of California at Davis

Mentor:  Meghan Miller, PhD

Tracking the Development of ADHD in Toddlers Diagnosed with ASD

Children with ASD often also receive an ADHD diagnoses as they grow up. Focused on infants 1-3 years old, this study will try to determine when ADHD symptoms start to arise, and what those symptoms look like in children with ASD, in an effort to enable earlier diagnoses of comorbid ADHD in children with ASD.

Joshua Glauser | Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard University

Mentors: Charles Nelson, PhD and Carol Wilkinson, MD, PhD

Examining a new biological early marker for ASD in infants

While autism is typically not diagnosed until 24 months, biological features can often be noticed much earlier. For example, it has been suggested that as early as 3 months, infants who go on to be diagnosed with autism might look at their mother less often. This project will examine how early brain responses to seeing their mother vs. a stranger are related to the development of social behavior and gestures in kids who go on to be diagnosed with autism. This would support the earliest possible diagnosis of autism, as well development of language and social abilities.

Kyra Rosen | University of California, Los Angeles

Mentor: Shafali Jeste, MD

Breaking Barriers to Medical Care for Adults with Profound, Syndromic Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders

The goal of this research will be to identify and classify the major hurdles to positive lifestyle outcomes in adults with the most severe forms of autism and neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs). Utilizing an existing database, Ms. Rosen will evaluate reports of medical comorbidities and conditions in adults, will examine service utilization and access to care, and will interview caregivers via zoom to better understand barriers to care. These data will help improve access to care for individuals with profound autism.