Autism Science Foundation Announces 2021 Undergraduate Research Grant Recipients

New funding will support scientifically driven research from a diverse group of young scientists

NEW YORK — March 30, 2021 — The Autism Science Foundation (ASF), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting and funding innovative autism research, today announced the recipients of its annual undergraduate summer research fellowships. Grants have been awarded to: Beza Ayalew of UCLA, Jadon Mehringer of Indiana University, Daniel Nunez Huaracha of Harvard University and Jennifer Yu of California Institute of Technology.

These four promising undergraduates will investigate topics ranging from understanding disparities in autism diagnosis in a school environment, determining the links between early motor development and language using an objective biomarker, utilizing technologies to streamline assessment and diagnosis, and providing resources for emergency room physicians dealing with acute psychiatric distress in those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

“These grants will enable undergraduate researchers to contribute to scientifically important projects that address the needs of traditionally underserved communities, while also gaining skills that will help them to
flourish as future autism researchers,” said Alison Singer, Co-Founder and President of ASF.

“ASF appreciates the importance of fostering research in undergraduates from diverse backgrounds, as well as promoting science that addresses service disparities in marginalized communities,” said ASF Chief Science Officer Dr. Alycia Halladay. “This work is critical to ensuring the entire autism community receives the help that it desperately needs.”

This is the eighth year ASF has offered grants to promising young researchers. In 2018, Inside Philanthropy praised ASF’s focus on young scientists, writing that funding undergraduates “is not something we see very often. In fact, we almost never see it. A key to achieving (medical) breakthroughs is first to win the battle to engage and retain young investigators. That means getting to promising researchers early. ASF
says it’s alone among funders in its view that support for undergrads is a worthwhile use of research dollars. As far as we know, that’s true.”

The following projects have received funding:

Beza Ayalew
University of California at Los Angeles
Mentors: Brian Boyd, PhD, KU and Connie Kasari, PhD, UCLA

Title: 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 for African American children if ASD rates are lower than in white families.

Jadon Mehringer
Indiana University
Mentor: Jill Fodstad, PhD
Title: 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
Harvard University
Mentor: Charles A. Nelson, PhD
Title: 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 Adophs, PhD
Title: 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.