ASF’s Latest COVID-19 Grants Will Fund Studies Focusing on Telehealth and the Pandemic’s Mental Health Impacts

June 7, 2021

NEW YORK — June 7, 2021 — The Autism Science Foundation (ASF), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting and funding innovative autism research, today announced its fourth round of COVID-19 Research Grant recipients. This funding opportunity was started in the very early days of the pandemic to support scientists who were struggling to continue their research studies when institutions were shut down. The mechanism was then expanded to include research about the unique effects of COVID-19 on people with autism. The grantees are Dr. Joshua Anbar of the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center in Arizona, Dr. Kathryn Hauschild of Stony Brook University in New York, Dr. Emily Neuhaus of Seattle Children’s Research Institute in Washington and Dr. Michele Villalobos of the University of Utah.

This new funding will help two of the grantees examine different aspects of telehealth, with one seeking to expand the scope of online evaluations in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and cognitive disabilities, and the other to reduce disparities in telehealth services across the socioeconomic spectrum. New funds will also support two of the grantees’ efforts to examine issues related to mental health: understanding the effects of pandemic-induced isolation on adolescents with ASD, and recognizing and promoting factors that confer resilience to pandemic-related trauma.

“At the start of the pandemic our focus was on keeping existing research from being shut down, but now we’ve pivoted to funding studies that examine how we can use what we’ve learned through the natural experiment of telehealth and teletherapy to continue delivering resources to the autism community in the most efficient and effective ways possible,” said Alison Singer, Co-Founder and President of ASF. “It’s also critical that we understand the unique mental health needs of people with autism who have been disproportionately impacted by the challenges and trauma of the pandemic.”

The following projects have received funding:

Joshua Anbar, Ph.D., MPH
Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, AZ
Mentor: Christopher Smith, Ph.D. and Nicole Matthews, Ph.D.
Title: Expanding the scope of telehealth evaluations in children with ASD
During the pandemic, when in-person assessments were prohibited, many clinicians started to embrace telehealth evaluations such as NODA. However, a critical part of the ASD assessment is cognitive testing, which has been difficult to adapt to a virtual environment. This study investigates the precision of telehealth administration of a standard measure of cognitive ability, the Kauffman Brief Intelligence Test. It will provide resources to validate the instrument so that assessments can be accurately made via remote methods assessments, 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. This funding will help enhance the Naturalistic Observation Diagnostic Assessment tool and allow for its use to, eventually, be expanded to 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, Ph.D.
Stony Brook University, NY
Mentor: Matthew Lerner, PhD
Title: 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 at all ages, 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.

Emily Neuhaus, Ph.D.
Seattle Children’s Research Institute, WA
Title: 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, Ph.D.
University of Utah
Title: 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.

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About the Autism Science Foundation
The Autism Science Foundation (ASF) is a 501(c) (3) public charity. Its mission is to support autism research by providing funding to scientists and organizations conducting autism research. ASF also provides information about autism to the general public and serves to increase awareness of autism spectrum disorders and the needs of individuals and families affected by autism. To learn more about the Autism Science Foundation or to make a donation, visit www.autismsciencefoundation.org.

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