ASF-Funded Research


Funding autism research is at the core of our mission.

We prioritize funding clever early-career investigators with cutting-edge ideas who need seed money to get their research off the ground. ASF pairs these researchers with established scientists who provide mentorship and training. The government and other funders have decreased funding for training grants, but we are committed to helping early-career scientists gather the initial data they need to attract major funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), all while encouraging the best and brightest researchers to dedicate their careers to autism.

Current Grantees

Predoctoral Fellowships

Samantha Harker | Arizona State University

Mentor: B. Blair Braden, Ph.D.

The Role of Autism Risk Genes in Cognitive and Brain Aging Outcomes in Autistic Adults

Compared to people without autism, the risk of Alzheimer’s disease is 2.6 times higher in people with autism, and they are twice as likely to die prematurely – with autistic women being at even higher risk for premature death. However, very few research studies focus on or even include autistic adults who are middle aged and older. This project capitalizes on a cohort of older autistic and neurotypical adults who receive assessments of brain structure, memory function, and intellectual ability at multiple timepoints as they age. Integrating brain imaging, genomic techniques, and statistical tools, this researcher will determine if autism risk genes also lead to memory decline and how these genes affect brain structure and the cortical thinning that is typical in all older adults. In addition, they will examine sex differences in autistic adult memory and changes in the memory system across age, with the goal of identifying sex-specific biomarkers that can be used to predict who will be most vulnerable to adverse aging outcomes. This work has implications for the future development of precision medicine and other interventions that will increase the quality of life for older adults across the spectrum.

Nicholas Page | University of California at San Francisco

Mentor: Stephan Sanders, BMBS, Ph.D.

Functional Genomics of the Non-Coding Genome in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Most of the genetic research conducted to understand rare genetic forms of autism has been focused on the coding regions of the DNA. In genetics, the coding regions are specific parts of the DNA sequence that directly encode instructions for building proteins. There is still a lack of knowledge around the non-coding regions of the genome, which do not contain instructions to make proteins but rather regulate how genes are turned on and off. Recent studies have shown that the non-coding regions play an integral role in brain development. This study will look at over 700,000 non-coding variants in autism to determine their role and importance.

Following the initial analysis, regions that are determined to play a role in the coding of a gene called SCN2A will be targeted. SCN2A is a protein that controls how cells turn on and off, and is strongly tied to both autism and epilepsy.  Identifying and validating the enhancers of ASD-associated genes like SCN2A will help scientists better understand mechanisms behind genetic influence of autism and comorbid features, and will also provide novel therapeutic targets for single gene disorders.

This project is graciously co-funded by FamilieSCN2A, the patient advocacy group that supports families with this genetic variation.

Rubla Singla | University of North Carolina

Mentor: Jason Stein, Ph.D.

Can Brain Size Predict Autism? Building a model system with iPSC-derived cortical organoids

Brain imaging studies of infants with autism have shown a faster rate of expansion of a layer of the brain called the cortex in those who go on to be diagnosed with autism. Some infants also exhibit macrocephaly (larger than expected overall brain size). However, little is known about these features in autism. This study will develop a new model system utilizing organoids, which are aggregates of cells obtained directly from individual study participants and then further manipulated in a dish to recreate the cortex. In this way, scientists can understand how cells divide, expand, and grow. This researcher will then compare features in the organoids with brain scans collected from the same individual. This work will provide the research community with a novel way to test therapies and interventions on those with macrocephaly.

Postdoctoral Fellowships

Elaine Clarke, Ph.D. | Rutgers University

Mentor: Vanessa Bal, Ph.D.

Developing Intervention Targets for Adults with Profound Autism based on Daily Living Skills and Cognitive Ability

Many autistic people have worse daily living skills (DLS) than would be expected based on their intellectual ability (IQ). Better daily living skills have been linked to more positive outcomes in those with autism.  Previous research looking at the gap between DLS and IQ focused on individuals at a single point in time, providing a snapshot of their current abilities rather than assessing these abilities across the lifespan. This study will better describe the discrepancy in DLS and IQ by engaging an existing longitudinal cohort of autistic individuals that has been followed from 2-33 years of age, focusing on specific DLS rather than lumping them all together.  These findings will allow for more focused intervention targets in adults with profound autism.

Two Year Post-Undergraduate Fellowship

Sarah Bayoumi | University of California at Davis

Mentor: Meghan Miller, Ph.D.

Do Feeding and Eating Challenges in Infancy Predict Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Many parents of older autistic children look back and recall that their children experienced eating and feeding problems during infancy. These challenges negatively impacted their child’s quality of life resulting in issues from stomach pain to malnutrition. This study will examine feeding and eating behaviors in infants as early as 6 months old with a family history of either autism or ADHD. These infants will be followed to toddlerhood to determine if eating and feeding problems can contribute to early prediction of autism. The goals of this research are to determine if early eating difficulties are a sign of autism and if they are specific to autism, as well as how best to treat these issues early in children likely to be diagnosed with autism.

Profound Autism Pilot Grants

Margaret Reynolds, M.D., MSc | Washington University in St. Louis

Improving Social Behavior and Adaptive Functioning in Children with Profound Autism Through Vision Correction

Vision problems, including far- and near-sightedness, affect up to 44% of children with autism. These deficits may lead to sensory deprivation and impair skills related to autism, including attention and communication. Refractive errors are usually corrected by the use of eyeglasses or contact lenses, but most individuals with profound autism cannot tolerate wearing them and may benefit from vision-correcting, refractive surgery. In this study, pediatric ophthalmologist Dr. Margaret Reynolds will examine social reciprocity, social interaction, and adaptive behavior in children with profound autism who have had this vision-correcting surgery. The methods used to track these outcomes do not rely on the child’s speech or language ability, so those who are non- or minimally-verbal can participate. While at present only a few doctors perform this surgery in children, this relatively simple medical procedure could lead to improved quality of life and function.

Heather Nuske, Ph.D. & David Mandell, Sc.D. | University of Pennsylvania

Reducing Severe Behaviors in School Settings for Children with Profound Autism Using Wearable Devices

Studies using wearable devices suggest that severe behaviors like aggression and self-injury are often preceded by physiological signs that may reflect emotional dysregulation and stress, such as increased heart rate and sudden movements. In order to best manage these situations and support children with profound autism in school settings, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania developed the KeepCalm app. This app works with a wearable device and allows educators to monitor their students in real-time. The app’s interactive learning feature helps train teachers to identify early signs of distress and use appropriate de-escalation strategies before injurious behavior occurs. This information can also be shared with parents, so that they can use the same strategies at home. This project will assess the KeepCalm system in educational teams and modify the application and training to specifically accommodate students with profound autism.

Adam Naples, Ph.D. | Yale University

Adapting Biomarker Assays for Profound Autism

Individuals with profound autism have been historically underrepresented in research. Though profoundly autistic individuals make up roughly 27 percent of the ASD population, they represent only a small portion of research participants. Consequently, research findings in the field underrepresent profoundly autistic individuals. One of the most significant reasons for this underrepresentation is the need for research participants to follow spoken or written instructions and maintain engagement with a task. In this project researchers will test a novel interactive experimental delivery system that helps people participate in research without needing to understand complex instructions. The experiment uses computer vision systems that reward participants for sitting still and attending, rather than asking a participant to sit quietly and attend to a computer screen without incentive. Using this method, researchers will study two promising biomarkers, the balance of neural activity in the brain using electroencephalography (EEG) (which is associated with sensory sensitivity), and arousal using pupil diameter (which is associated with symptoms like disordered sleep and aggression). The goal is to develop a novel system for including profoundly autistic individuals in research.

Undergraduate Summer Research Grants

Wasayef Bsharat | Montclair State University
Mentor: Erin Kang, Ph.D.

Adapting Biomarker Assays for Profound Autism

Although the US population is increasingly diverse, most autism research is still conducted with participants who are largely white and non-Hispanic. In addition, studies often collect demographic data in a way that reduces all possible ethnic and racial identities into one of three or four broad categories of “white” “black” “Asian,” etc. This means that people and communities with unique needs, experiences, and perspectives may be overlooked as they are subsumed into one of the broader groups or grouped into a catch-all “Others” category. In order to ensure all families are recognized in autism research, this study will evaluate the service needs and access barriers to diagnosis and treatment in families of South Asian and Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) descent. The student will gather information from these families including measures of autism features, history of service utilization, potential barriers, quality of services, and family needs.

Christian Grey | Oklahoma State University
Mentor: Emily Abel, Ph.D.

Incorporating Caregiver Concerns into Measures of Sleep Disturbance in Autistic Individuals

Ensuring children are safe during the night can be a major concern for autism families. Up to 80% of children with autism experience sleep disturbances, and caregivers express concern about elopement, self-injury, and other risks that may be incurred by a child who has difficulty sleeping through the night. Safeguarding against these risks can be challenging and lead to many sleepless nights for the parents as well as the child. This project will use data gathered through remote interviews and daily sleep diaries to adapt a newly formed questionnaire that can be validated and used as a quantitative measure of caregivers’ safety-related concerns. There will be a special focus on the concerns of underrepresented groups such as families of color, those from socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, and families supporting children with additional disabilities. Additionally, objectively measured sleep data from a larger existing study will be used to assess how caregiver safety concerns relate to the actual sleep patterns of both the child and caregiver. The ability to document and measure safety-related concerns in diverse communities and identify sleep patterns linked to these concerns will lead to better understanding and more effective targeting of the specific needs of families.

Yichi Zhang | University of North Carolina
Mentor: Mark Shen, Ph.D.

Following Up with Infants with a Unique Biomarker for ASD

This project will expand an existing longitudinal study that tracked children from infancy and recently reported that a high proportion of those who were later diagnosed with autism showed an excess volume of cerebrospinal fluid in their brains when they were 6 months old. To date, assessment of these infants stopped at a diagnosis. This student will administer additional assessments to these families to determine whether this increase in cerebrospinal fluid persists as the children age, whether it’s associated with any behavioral features including attention difficulties, executive function and ADHD, and whether it predicts differences in autism severity.

View previous grantees here:

2023 Grantees2020 Grantees2017 Grantees2014 Grantees2011 Grantees
2022 Grantees2019 Grantees2016 Grantees2013 Grantees2010 Grantees
2021 Grantees2018 Grantees2015 Grantees2012 Grantees