ASF Awards 2024 Fellowships to Five Early-Career Researchers

NEW YORK — April 30, 2024 — The Autism Science Foundation (ASF), a nonprofit organization supporting families facing autism, today announced the recipients of its annual pre- and post-doctoral fellowship grants and its 2-year post-undergraduate research fellowship. Grants will be awarded to students to study autism across the lifespan, from whether feeding challenges in infancy are a new early warning sign of autism to developing new intervention targets for adults with profound autism. 

“These new projects focus on several understudied issues facing people with autism, including how the brain changes with aging and the need to improve daily living skills,” said Dr. Alycia Halladay, Chief Science Officer of the Autism Science Foundation. “Our scientific reviewers and our board were particularly impressed by the quality of the science and the environments in which these students will be trained”.

Since its founding in 2009, the Autism Science Foundation has funded more than $5.5 million in grants, resulting in breakthroughs that have made a demonstrably positive impact on the lives of people with autism. 

The following early career projects were selected for spring 2024 funding:

Two Year Post-Undergraduate Fellowship

Sarah Bayoumi
University of California at Davis
Mentor:  Meghan Miller, PhD
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.

Pre-Doctoral Fellowships:

Samantha Harker
Arizona State University
Mentor:  B. Blair Braden, PhD
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.

Nicolas Page
University of California at San Francisco
Mentor:  Stephan Sanders, BMBS, PhD
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.

The FamilieSCN2A Foundation is partnering with ASF to support the Page grant focused on gene targeting. Shawn Egan, PhD, Chief Science Officer shared: “We are excited to announce our partnership with the Autism Science Foundation to fund this ambitious and highly innovative project to characterize how non-coding genetics affect Autism Spectrum Disorder. Particularly significant to our SCN2A community, validating potential enhancers of SCN2A should deepen our understanding of SCN2A regulation and may have both prognostic and therapeutic implications.”

Rubal Singla
University of North Carolina
Mentor:  Jason Stein, PhD.
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.

Post-doctoral fellowship:

Elaine Clarke, PhD
Rutgers University
Mentor:  Vanessa Bal, PhD
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.


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