2021 Grantees

Undergraduate Summer Research Grants

Beza Ayalew | University of California, Los Angeles

Mentor: Brian Boyd, PhD & Connie Kasari, PhD

Autism Spectrum Disorder Disparities in the California School System

There is a longstanding disparity in diagnosis of ASD in African American children compared to white or Asian children. African American children are less likely to be diagnosed in preschool, and this delay decreases the total number of years in which the child may receive services. This fellowship will examine diagnosis of ASD, Intellectual Disability and Language Disorder in African American students compared to white students in a school database where the majority of students are ethnic minorities. This will provide information about diagnostic disparity in school settings and what diagnoses, if any, are being provided African American children if ASD rates are lower than in white families.

Jadon Mehringer | Indiana University

Mentor: Jill Fodstad, PhD

Developing a Protocol for ASD Intervention in Acute General Psychiatry In-Patient Units

People with ASD are more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric issues compared to those without a diagnosis. Their complex needs make providing care more difficult and many psychiatric unit staff do not have the skills or knowledge to help those with ASD. While some evidence-based practices do exist and have been published, they are rarely implemented in acute psychiatric settings. This project will develop an ASD-specific training and intervention package for use in acute care settings, including compiling the evidence and incorporating stakeholder perceptions and opinions into what needs to be stressed. Guidelines will then be developed for clinicians in acute care settings, improving care and services for autistic individuals and their families.

Daniel Nunez Huaracha | Boston Children’s Hospital

Mentor: Charles Nelson, PhD

Early Links Between Motor Development and Language in ASD

Motor abilities like sitting and grasping are the first behaviors to emerge in babies, and the first to show differences in those who receive a later ASD diagnosis. These motor skills have been linked to later social communication abilities in typically developing children, but not always to those with a later ASD diagnosis. The data indicate that motor deficits should be targets of interventions in infants and that these targeted interventions will have beneficial effects on later social communication skills, improving later language and non-verbal communication. This research project will utilize an EEG-based biomarker to investigate biological signals of these early motor behaviors in infants who are later diagnosed with ASD vs. those who are not. Combination of both behavioral signals and biomarkers for early behavioral impairments can better inform clinicians about which interventions will be best for which infants.

Jennifer Yu | California Institute of Technology

Mentor: Ralph Adolphs, PhD

Smartphone-based Eye-tracking for Assessing Autism Spectrum Disorder

There are significant disparities in early identification of ASD. More biologically–based methods, like eye-tracking, are needed to ensure a reduction in bias in early diagnosis and intervention. In this project, the undergraduate researcher will work with Google to collect eye tracking data from people with ASD over a Smartphone app in order to develop a mechanism to obtain this data over the internet. The fellowship will support the targeted collection of families from African American or Latinx communities, so that they are meaningfully included in the research findings

COVID-19 Research Grants

Joshua Anbar, DrPh, MPH | Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, AZ

Mentor:  Christopher Smith, PhD & Nicole Matthews, PhD

Expanding the scope of telehealth evaluations in children with ASD

After institution shutdowns, it became impossible to assess children in person and many clinicians started to embrace telehealth evaluations. However, a critical part of the ASD assessment is cognitive testing, which has been difficult to adapt to a virtual environment. This study will build upon an ongoing effort to understand the precision of a standard measure of cognitive ability, the Kauffman Brief Intelligence Test, in telehealth settings. It will provide resources to validate the instrument so that assessments can be accurately made via remote methods, and possibly allow for the use of this online method of capturing cognitive function for families who may have limited time for in person evaluations. Finally, funding will be used to understand how a larger group of assessments called the Naturalistic Observation Diagnostic Assessment works in older children and adults. The findings will help the community better utilize effective telehealth resources for remote assessments and potentially reduce wait times for those evaluations after the pandemic has resolved.

Kathryn Hauschild, PhD | Stony Brook University

Mentor: Matthew Lerner, PhD

Examining the effects of pandemic-induced isolation on the mental health of adolescents with ASD

At the start of the pandemic, Stony Brook University initiated a longitudinal study of the effects of isolation on psychosocial functioning, mental health and stress in students with and without ASD. They recontacted families already enrolled in other projects so they could see the changes from pre- to mid pandemic across a number of outcomes. While there were significant difficulties in many aspects of social interactions for all youth, the effects were most pronounced in youth with ASD. Additional funding will allow this team to continue to collect data to understand how returning to in-person school and changes in mental health supports influence outcomes through the fall of 2021.

Allison Shana Nahmias, PhD | Stony Brook University

Evaluating an Online Intervention to Help Autistic Adolescents Deal with Pandemic Stress 

Most mental health interventions require multiple clinician visits, can be costly, and are not feasible for many families from diverse socioeconomic communities.  This project will study the effects of a single-session intervention, successfully utilized with neurotypical adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic, to see if it is also successful in supporting autistic adolescents. Stressful events have increased during the pandemic, resulting in additional mental health challenges throughout the ASD community.

Emily Neuhaus, PhD | Seattle Children’s Research Institute, WA

Understanding and promoting factors that confer resilience to pandemic-related trauma

Children and adolescents have had varying mental health responses to the pandemic. Some have been experiencing extreme distress, and others have been effectively supported through new and existing support services. Some have hypothesized that those with pre-existing psychiatric issues, including ADHD and anxiety, may be more vulnerable to the effects of social distancing, and that different child and family factors may influence resilience in different ways. Researchers in this project will collect information from a diverse group of families (Black, indigenous and other people of color) with and without a member with autism. They will also include those with or without comorbid anxiety or ADHD to identify factors that improve coping, reduce stress, and promote physical and emotional well-being. This study will help identify those who are at the greatest risk of emotional and behavioral problems and pinpoint factors that may help convey resilience to, or ameliorate, mental health issues.

Michele Villalobos, PhD | University of Utah

Adjusting telehealth practices for low-resource families

During the pandemic, many families were forced to go online to try to access diagnostic assessment, services, intervention and education. While telehealth services have reached the homes and served the needs of many families, its usefulness has been variable. Early research showed that while there was an 80% increase in use of telehealth overall, families living in rural communities, those of Hispanic heritage and those on Medicaid were not utilizing important telehealth services to the same extent. Dr. Villalobos will study the sociodemographic factors of families utilizing autism services both before and during the pandemic to understand how socioeconomic factors influenced telehealth usage. In this way, telehealth and other models of care can be improved so that the disparity around access to telehealth can be mitigated and more families can be served with existing resources.

Shuting Zheng, PhD | University of California San Francisco

Improving Mental Health Service Delivery for Individuals with Autism

Only about half of autistic adults who reported experiencing symptoms of depression during the pandemic received treatment for their depression due to problems accessing services. This project will expand a longitudinal study of autistic adults reporting their own experiences with mental health care. The goal is to better understand the different factors that support or deter mental health support, learn how autistic adults receive and prefer to receive support, and then improve the services they receive.

BSRC Database Grants

Rujuta Bhatt Wilson, PhD | University of California, Los Angeles

Linking early fine motor skills to the development of gestures and language in infants

Motor development is one of the earliest features and benchmarks of developmental progress, and is crucial in driving multiple cognitive and social processes as babies grow older. However, little is known about the relationship between very early fine motor skills and gestures in infancy, even though they are highly associated with each other and important early markers of an ASD diagnosis. Doing so may require sophisticated analytic techniques and more detailed data collected in this early time frame. This study will allow for the inclusion and analysis of  item level scores on the Mullen, a developmental measure that includes testing of motor function. These data will be paired with data on gestures at 12 months and language at 24 months to map the link between motor abilities and communication abilities later in life, in those with a family history of ASD as well as those with no family history. The results of the study may inform important avenues for early intervention to improve social communication.

Jessica Girault, PhD | University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Familial factors that drive behavioral development and ASD

Work of the BSRC has shown that symptom and behavioral profiles of older siblings with ASD may inform outcomes in younger siblings. This project will use family data, rather than just data from the sibling, to study how behaviors in older siblings with ASD predict the likelihood of a diagnosis, as well as how they inform patterns of behavioral development in their younger siblings during infancy and toddlerhood.   BSRC members will utilize item-level, not just overall scores, from standardized behavioral instruments from the family member with the diagnosis.  Usually, this level of data is collected on the individual with autism, or the younger sibling, but not both. The results will have implications for screening and monitoring in early life by identifying cost-effective markers of diagnostic probability that can be easily obtained from families. Early identification paves the way for early intervention, which has the greatest potential to improve long-term adaptive outcomes for children and their families.

Heather Volk, PhD | Johns Hopkins University

Linking genetics to behavior in infant siblings

Autism Spectrum Disorders have been shown to be highly heritable, including both common genetic variants and rare genetic variants, with common genetic variation being represented by a number called a “polygenic risk score” or PRS.  Understanding the genetic influences of ASD can lead to better detection as well as open the doors to discovery of other heritable factors involved in ASD.   This project will generate polygenic risk scores for families in the BSRC and link that data to both behavioral data at multiple time points from the child with ASD and the sibling.  This data will help better characterize the biological background of families in the BSRC (including those with no family history) and will help better understand subtypes that will be meaningful for clinical interventions.