Podcast: Some important discoveries of 2022

Last week a publication (see below) was published as a commentary in the journal Autism Research. It states that researchers, parents, clinicians, educators and the overall community should not be limited in their use of language to describe the broad condition of autism. Some people experience impairments, deficits, and have limitations. Not only is it true, we should be talking about it. This podcast describes the motivation for the paper and the potential consequences of mandating the use terms that may not accurately reflect the diversity of experiences. While some papers have been published with the opposite sentiments, it’s important to understand both sides of this debate. We hope this paper leads to further conversation about this topic. Listen to the podcast here.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/aur.2876

Children’s ability to share attention with another person (i.e., achieve joint attention) is critical for learning about their environments in general1-3 and supporting language and object word learning in particular.1,4-14 While joint attention (JA) as it pertains to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is often more narrowly operationalized as arising from eye gaze or explicit pointing cues alone,2,5,10,15-19 recent evidence demonstrates that JA in natural environments can be achieved more broadly through multiple other pathways beyond gaze and gestures.2,4,20-31 Here, we use dual head-mounted eye tracking to examine pathways into and characteristics of JA episodes during free-flowing parent-child toy play, comparing children with ASD to typically developing (TD) children. Moments of JA were defined objectively as both the child’s and parent’s gaze directed to the same object at the same time. Consistent with previous work in TD children,4,21,25,30-32 we found that both TD and ASD children rarely look at their parent’s face in this unstructured free play context. Nevertheless, both groups achieved similarly high rates of JA that far exceeded chance, suggesting the use of alternative pathways into JA. We characterize these alternate pathways, find they occur at similar levels across both groups, and achieve similar ends: namely, for both groups, targets of JA are named more frequently by parents in those moments than non-jointly attended objects. These findings broaden the conceptualization of JA abilities and impairment in ASD and raise questions regarding the mechanistic role of the face-gaze-mediated JA pathway in ASD.

Keywords: autism; development; dyadic interaction; eye tracking; joint attention; naturalistic play; social interaction.

Acquisition of pronominal forms by children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) continues to garner significant attention due to the unusual ways that such children produce and comprehend them. In particular, pronoun reversal errors (e.g., using the 2nd-person pronoun “you” to refer to oneself) have been noted in the speech of children with ASD since the very first report of the disorder. In more recent years, investigations of the signing of deaf children with ASD have documented a different phenomenon: palm orientation reversals, such that signs typically produced with an outward-facing palm are produced with the palm towards the signer, or vice versa. At the same time, true pronoun reversals have yet to be documented in the signing of deaf children on the autism spectrum. These two curious facts have led us to ask if there is evidence that palm orientation reversals in signed languages and pronoun reversals in spoken languages could be surface manifestations of the same underlying differences present in ASD. In this paper we seek to establish whether there is evidence for such an analogy, by comparing the ages at which the two phenomena appear in both typically-developing (TD) children and those with ASD, the frequency and consistency with which they appear, and their relationships with other linguistic and cognitive skills. Data are presented from a fingerspelling task given to a sample of 17 native-signing children with ASD and 24 native-signing TD children. We conclude that there are provocative parallels between pronoun reversals in spoken languages and palm reversals in signed languages, though more research is needed to definitively answer these questions.

Keywords: ASL; autism spectrum disorder; fingerspelling; modality; pronouns.

Assessment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) relies on expert clinician observation and judgment, but objective measurement tools have the potential to provide additional information on ASD symptom severity. Diagnostic evaluations for ASD typically include the autism diagnostic observation schedule (ADOS-2), a semi-structured assessment composed of a series of social presses. The current study examined associations between concurrent objective features of child vocalizations during the ADOS-2 and examiner-rated autism symptom severity. The sample included 66 children (49 male; M = 40 months, SD = 10.58) evaluated in a university-based clinic, 61 of whom received an ASD diagnosis. Research reliable administration of the ADOS-2 provided social affect (SA) and restricted and repetitive behavior (RRB) calibrated severity scores (CSS). Audio was recorded from examiner-worn eyeglasses during the ADOS-2 and child and adult speech were differentiated with LENA SP Hub. PRAAT was used to ascertain acoustic features of the audio signal, specifically the mean fundamental vocal frequency (F0) of LENA-identified child speech-like vocalizations (those with phonemic content), child cry vocalizations, and adult speech. Sphinx-4 was employed to estimate child and adult phonological features indexed by the average consonant and vowel count per vocalization. More than a quarter of the variance in ADOS-2 RRB CSS was predicted by the combination of child phoneme count per vocalization and child vocalization F0. Findings indicate that both acoustic and phonological features of child vocalizations are associated with expert clinician ratings of autism symptom severity. LAY SUMMARY: Determination of the severity of autism spectrum disorder is based in part on expert (but subjective) clinician observations during the ADOS-2. Two characteristics of child vocalizations-a smaller number of speech-like sounds per vocalization and higher pitched vocalizations (including cries)-were associated with greater autism symptom severity. The results suggest that objectively ascertained characteristics of children’s vocalizations capture variance in children’s restricted and repetitive behaviors that are reflected in clinician severity indices.

Keywords: audio processing; objective measurement; vocalization.

Competitive interactions have a vital role in the ecology of most animal species1-3 and powerfully influence the behaviour of groups4,5. To succeed, individuals must exert effort based on not only the resources available but also the social rank and behaviour of other group members2,6,7. The single-cellular mechanisms that precisely drive competitive interactions or the behaviour of social groups, however, remain poorly understood. Here we developed a naturalistic group paradigm in which large cohorts of mice competitively foraged for food as we wirelessly tracked neuronal activities across thousands of unique interactions. By following the collective behaviour of the groups, we found neurons in the anterior cingulate that adaptively represented the social rank of the animals in relation to others. Although social rank was closely behaviourally linked to success, these cells disambiguated the relative rank of the mice from their competitive behaviour, and incorporated information about the resources available, the environment, and past success of the mice to influence their decisions. Using multiclass models, we show how these neurons tracked other individuals within the group and accurately predicted upcoming success. Using neuromodulation techniques, we also show how the neurons conditionally influenced competitive effort-increasing the effort of the animals only when they were more dominant to their groupmates and decreasing it when they were subordinate-effects that were not observed in other frontal lobe areas. Together, these findings reveal cingulate neurons that serve to adaptively drive competitive interactions and a putative process that could intermediate the social and economic behaviour of groups.

Autistic individuals are at an increased risk for both sleep disturbances and depression. While studies in the general population and in autistic adults have drawn general links between sleep disturbances and mental health, few studies have examined the extent to which specific sleep problems may be implicated in the extremely high rates of depression among autistic adults. This study aimed to describe the patterns of sleep disturbances in autistic young adults, and their associations with depressive symptoms while controlling for relevant demographic factors. A sample of 304 legally independent adults (age 18-35 years old) with a childhood diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder self-reported on their average sleep behaviors during the past week and depressive symptoms on the Beck Depressive Inventory-II. A significant proportion (86.01%) of autistic young adults experienced at least one of the primary sleep disturbances of interest, including short total sleep time (39.59%), poor sleep efficiency (60.07%), and delayed sleep phase (36.18%). Additionally, lower sleep efficiency and delayed sleep phase were both associated with higher depressive symptoms. The associations between sleep and depressive symptoms identified in our study suggest that sleep treatments may hold potential for ameliorating depressive symptoms in autistic adults who also experience sleep problems. Further research using daily sleep diaries and objective measures of sleep behaviors, as well as longitudinal studies, are needed to understand how changes in sleep may relate to changes in depressive symptoms in autistic adults.

Keywords: delayed phase; depression; sleep; sleep efficiency; young adults.

Abstract

Importance: Presence of developmental delays in autism is well established, yet few studies have characterized variability in developmental milestone attainment in this population.

Objective: To characterize variability in the age at which autistic individuals attain key developmental milestones based on co-occurring intellectual disability (ID), presence of a rare disruptive genetic variant associated with neurodevelopmental disorders (NDD), age at autism diagnosis, and research cohort membership.

Design: The study team harmonized data from 4 cross-sectional autism cohorts: the Autism Genetics Research Exchange (n = 3284; 1997-2015), The Autism Simplex Collection (n = 694; 2008-2011), the Simons Simplex Collection (n = 2753; 2008-2011), and the Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge (n = 10 367; 2016-present). The last sample further included 4145 siblings without an autism diagnosis or ID.

Participants: Convenience sample of 21 243 autistic individuals or their siblings without an autism diagnosis aged 4 to 17 years.

Main outcomes and measures: Parents reported ages at which participants attained key milestones including smiling, sitting upright, crawling, walking, spoon-feeding self, speaking words, speaking phrases, and acquiring bladder and bowel control. A total of 5295 autistic individuals, and their biological parents, were genetically characterized to identify de novo variants in NDD-associated genes. The study team conducted time-to-event analyses to estimate and compare percentiles in time with milestone attainment across autistic individuals, subgroups of autistic individuals, and the sibling sample.

Results: Seventeen thousand ninety-eight autistic individuals (mean age, 9.15 years; 80.8% male) compared with 4145 siblings without autism or ID (mean age, 10.2 years; 50.2% female) showed delays in milestone attainment, with median (IQR) delays ranging from 0.7 (0.3-1.6) to 19.7 (11.4-32.2) months. More severe and more variable delays in autism were associated with the presence of co-occurring ID, carrying an NDD-associated rare genetic variant, and being diagnosed with autism by age 5 years. More severe and more variable delays were also associated with membership in earlier study cohorts, consistent with autism’s diagnostic and ascertainment expansion over the last 30 years.

Conclusions and relevance: As the largest summary to date of developmental milestone attainment in autism, to our knowledge, this study demonstrates substantial developmental variability across different conditions and provides important context for understanding the phenotypic and etiological heterogeneity of autism.

Copy-number variants and structural variants (CNVs/SVs) drive many neurodevelopmental-related disorders. While many neurodevelopmental-related CNVs/SVs give rise to complex phenotypes, the overlap in phenotypic presentation between independent CNVs can be extensive and provides a motivation for shared approaches. This confluence at the level of clinical phenotype implies convergence in at least some aspects of the underlying genomic mechanisms. With this perspective, our Commission on Novel Technologies for Neurodevelopmental CNVs asserts that the time has arrived to approach neurodevelopmental-related CNVs/SVs as a class of disorders that can be identified, investigated, and treated on the basis of shared mechanisms and/or pathways (e.g., molecular, neurological, or developmental). To identify common etiologic mechanisms among uncommon neurodevelopmental-related disorders and to potentially identify common therapies, it is paramount for teams of scientists, clinicians, and patients to unite their efforts. We bring forward novel, collaborative, and integrative strategies to translational CNV/SV research that engages diverse stakeholders to help expedite therapeutic outcomes. We articulate a clear vision for piloted roadmap strategies to reduce patient/caregiver burden and redundancies, increase efficiency, avoid siloed data, and accelerate translational discovery across CNV/SV-based syndromes.

Keywords: CNVs; biobank; community engagement; copy-number variants; genomic disorders; iPSCs; inclusion; infrastructure; long-read sequencing; neurodevelopment; neurological; patient centered; patient led; structural variants; systematic phenotyping; team science.

Objective: Collier/Olf/EBF (COE) transcription factors have distinct expression patterns in the developing and mature nervous system. To date, a neurological disease association has been conclusively established for only the Early B-cell Factor-3 (EBF3) COE family member through the identification of heterozygous loss-of-function variants in individuals with autism spectrum/neurodevelopmental disorders (NDD). Here, we identify a symptom severity risk association with missense variants primarily disrupting the zinc finger domain (ZNF) in EBF3-related NDD.

Methods: A phenotypic assessment of 41 individuals was combined with a literature meta-analysis for a total of 83 individuals diagnosed with EBF3-related NDD. Quantitative diagnostic phenotypic and symptom severity scales were developed to compare EBF3 variant type and location to identify genotype-phenotype correlations. To stratify the effects of EBF3 variants disrupting either the DNA-binding domain (DBD) or the ZNF, we used in vivo fruit fly UAS-GAL4 expression and in vitro luciferase assays.

Results: We show that patient symptom severity correlates with EBF3 missense variants perturbing the ZNF, which is a key protein domain required for stabilizing the interaction between EBF3 and the target DNA sequence. We found that ZNF-associated variants failed to restore viability in the fruit fly and impaired transcriptional activation. However, the recurrent variant EBF3 p.Arg209Trp in the DBD is capable of partially rescuing viability in the fly and preserved transcriptional activation.

Interpretation: We describe a symptom severity risk association with ZNF perturbations and EBF3 loss-of-function in the largest reported cohort to date of EBF3-related NDD patients. This analysis should have potential predictive clinical value for newly identified patients with EBF3 gene variants.

This week’s podcast explores the question about whether or not it is beneficial or just confusing to teach your child with autism multiple languages, or suppress the use of more than one language at home. Turns out, being bilingual helps with executive functioning (or those with preserved executive functioning can be bilingual), language, and provides benefits in verbal IQ depending on SES. In other words, it’s not harmful, it can be helpful, and those who choose to speak two languages at home should continue to do so if they feel that it is enhancing their child’s learning. Listen to the podcast here and find more information in the links below:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35102760/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34813032/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36222993/

Fieri said “Cooking with kids is not just about ingredients, recipes, and cooking. It’s about harnessing imagination, empowerment, and creativity.” This week’s podcast produced by ASF intern Mia Kotikovski from Stony Brook University explores how cooking can be not just fun for autistic individuals, but how it can build healthy habits in everyone. She discusses the scientific literature on why cooking improves eating habits and builds confidence. Listen to the podcast here.