ASF Announces Awardees of 2024 Undergraduate Summer Fellowships

NEW YORK — April 2, 2024 — The Autism Science Foundation (ASF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting families facing autism and to funding innovative autism research, today announced the recipients of its annual undergraduate summer research fellowships. Grants have been awarded to Wasayef Bsharat of Montclair State University, Christian Gray of Oklahoma State University and Yichi Zhang of the University of North Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities

This year’s diverse group of grantees will investigate critical research topics, including sleep disturbance in autism, access to services in under-represented ethnic groups, and early biomarkers of diagnosis and symptom severity.

“This funding mechanism focuses on underrepresented and underserved populations in the autism community because there are great disparities in timely diagnosis and support for racial and ethnic minority groups. These fellowships will allow new scientists from a range of backgrounds to address important questions that directly impact families” stated Alycia Halladay, PhD, Chief Science Officer.

“This is one of my favorite of ASF’s funding mechanisms,” added Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation. “Undergrads tend to have novel ideas and approaches to the critical issues in our community and we have found that when we fund students at this point in their career they tend to stay in autism research.” 

This is the eleventh consecutive year ASF has offered grants to highly promising  undergraduates. 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.”

The Autism Science Foundation also funds post-undergraduate, pre-doctoral, and postdoctoral fellowships as part of its early career grant program.  

The following projects have been awarded funding:

Wasayef Bsharat | Montclair State University
Mentor: Erin Kang, PhD
Addressing Challenges in Autism Service Access in South Asian and MENA families

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 Gray | Oklahoma State University
Mentor: Emily Abel, PhD
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 Institute for Developmental Disabilities
Mentor: Mark Shen, PhD
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.