2012 Research Findings

The following studies were published in 2012. The grants awarded by ASF to fund these studies may have been distributed in years prior to 2012.

ASD DSM Criteria Study

Potential Effect of DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria on ASD Prevalence Estimates

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) provides the standard criteria for diagnosis of hundreds of disorders, including ASD. Researchers, clinicians, insurance companies, policy makers, and various other organizations use the manual. In May 2013, the American Psychiatric Association is set to publish a new version of the DSM, DSM-5.

The proposed changes to the ASD DSM criteria in DSM-5 have the potential to affect many findings observed in epidemiological studies, alter how clinical diagnoses are made, and affect policies and services that use DSM-based diagnosis as an eligibility criterion.

Matthew Maenner and a team of researchers led a study to assess the effect of the DSM-5 criteria on previous ASD prevalence estimates based on DSM-IV-TR criteria. A second goal was to compare children meeting criteria for ASD under both DSM-5 and DSM-IV-TR coding schemes with children meeting criteria under the DSM-IV-TR scheme only. Although the DSM-5 ASD criteria do not differentiate between “subtypes” of ASD (i.e., Asperger syndrome, autistic disorder), the DSM-5 ASD criteria appear more similar to the current criteria for autistic disorder than PDD-NOS. Further work is needed to operationalize specific DSM-5 criteria for surveillance and screening purposes and ensure comparability across time points in surveillance systems.

Watch a video of Matthew Maenner discussing his research on ASD diagnosis. Also, read the recent review, What the DSM-5 Portends for Research, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorders in the Autism in the News section of our website.

AVPR1A Study

The Human AVPR1A BAC Transgenic Mouse: A Preclinical Model for Elucidating the Role of AVPR1A in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Rhonda Charles and a team of researchers from Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Emory University introduced the human AVPR1A gene into mice to develop a model to better understand the role of AVPR1A in ASD. AVPR1A is thought to affect social behavior and anxiety in ASD. The mice were evaluated using a number of biochemical and behavioral analyses.

Findings from the study demonstrated that transgenic mice robustly express human AVPR1A in a pattern that is comparable to AVPR1A expression in humans and primates. Mice expressing the human receptor may help scientists understand human AVPR1A signaling and circuitry and its potential therapeutic relevance to ASD.

Watch a video of Rhonda Charles discussing her research.

Motor & Learning Questionnaire

The Motor and Learning Questionnaire: Assessing 3 Domains of the Mullen Scales of Early Learning Via Parent Report

Klaus Libertus and a team of researchers at Kennedy Krieger Institute developed an indirect parent questionnaire of motor and cognitive functioning and compared parent responses to a standardized direct-observation measure (MSEL) for the same children. Parent reported scores on the MLQ were highly correlated with the directly assessed MSEL scores and parents did not systematically overestimate their child’s abilities on the MLQ.

Further, the MLQ extended the MSEL scores by incorporating a measure of parental certainty. Thus, the MLQ provides researchers with an alternative way to obtain MSEL scores from families when direct assessment is not possible or not desirable. The MLQ was not designed to replace the MSEL, but rather to be used in conjunction with it (e.g., in short-term treatment designs or to improve measure validity) or in situations where administration of the MSEL is not possible (e.g., for web-based surveys). The team is currently exploring correlations between the MLQ and another motor scale, the Peabody Scales of Motor Development.

Prelinguistic Symptoms Study

Measurement, Stability, and Modification of Prelinguistic Symptoms of Autism in Low-Risk Infants

Jessica Bradshaw and a team of researchers at University of California Santa Barbara Department of Counseling, Clinical, & School Psychology led this study to replicate previous studies measuring early markers of autism, assess whether these early behavior patterns show stability, and examine whether these behaviors can be efficiently and effectively modified. The findings from this study lend support for the measurement and stability of early social weaknesses in infancy. Additionally, the use of a Pivotal Response Treatment for improving early behaviors consistent with ASD, such as low social engagement and vocalizations, is effective. Taken together, these results suggest optimism in the area of early identification and intervention. As more infants exhibiting early signs of ASD are identified, empirically-supported methods of measurement and treatment for infants are critical. Further research with a large sample of infants exhibiting early signs of ASD is warranted.

Watch a video of Jessica Bradshaw discussing her research.

Social Impairment Study

Interventions for Social Impairment at School: Rethinking Implementation

Jill Locke presented follow up findings to her previous research about improving the social involvement for children with ASD. There have been recent calls for more active collaboration and partnership among researchers and the community stakeholders they are trying to assist at all stages of the research-to-practice process. Yet, there have been few examples of how to elicit information from stakeholders and utilize findings to improve implementation. Jill Locke presented an example of adaptation of an evidence-based intervention for use in school settings in which teacher input was used to guide researchers in adaptation studies and procedures.

Watch a video of Jill Locke discussing her research.

UBE3A Study

A Role for UBE3A in Structural Plasticity During the Critical Period of Neocortical Development

Portia McCoy and a team of researchers from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill led this study to determine UBE3A’s role in the structural plasticity of synapses during the experience-driven formation of neuronal circuits. The study found that cognitive impairments associated with an autism spectrum disorder called Angelman syndrome (AS), could arise due to an altered rate of dendritic spine turnover or replacement as a consequence of deficits in spine dynamics during the critical period for neocortical maturation. Dendritic spines receive signals from synapses, and thus play a critical role in brain function. This UBE3A mouse model can be used to determine how changes in structural plasticity are affected by loss of UBE3A during development and may be used to determine the efficacy of potential AS treatments for functional recovery.

Watch a video of Portia McCoy discussing her research.

Visual Scanning Study

Parsing Heterogeneity in Autism Spectrum Disorders Using Measures of Dynamic Visual Scanning

Jennifer Moriuchi and a team of researchers from Marcus Autism Center and University of Maryland led this study to assess alterations in time-varying visual salience as a diagnostic predictor of ASD, and investigate how different patterns of this visual salience relate to an individual’s level of social and cognitive functioning. The group proposed that a measure of time-varying visual salience could be a reliable and useful diagnostic marker for autism. In addition, results revealed differences in dynamic visual scanning patterns in cognitive profile subgroups of children with ASD, which suggests etiological differences and may support targeted interventions tailored to specific learning styles.