Research News

Scroll through recent research or click the category icon to the right of each title for similar research summaries. If you would like more background context on a particular piece of research, please click the link next to the “Reading Room Guide,” the small character at the bottom-left of each research story. He will transport you to the appropriate page in Autism Reading Room. You can access original publication sources and other popular media articles by clicking the news buttons at the bottom-right of each summary.

Study Sheds Light on Development of Neurons in ASD

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on January 14, 2019

Background: Stem cells are cells that have the potential to grow into many of the body’s different cell types during the process of development. To better understand development, scientists often rely on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are adult cells that have been reprogrammed to emulate embryonic stem cells. This allows scientists to model the development of diseases and other conditions outside of the body.


What’s New: A recent study explored the development of brain cells, or neurons, derived from iPSCs taken from people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as compared to those from their typically developing peers. The researchers took skin cell samples from 8 people with ASD and 5 people without ASD between the ages of 6 and 19. They transformed those cells into iPSCs, from which they coaxed neuronal cells.


In observing the development of the neuronal cells, the researchers found key differences in the cells that came from people with ASD, including:


  • The cells grew to a bigger size with more complex branches.
  • Networks of the cells behaved differently, with certain brain development processes beginning earlier.
  • Those brain processes involved genes that have been associated with ASD.


Why it’s important: This study sheds light on the early development of ASD. Future studies could refine strategies for earlier diagnosis.


Image: Neuronal cells derived from induced pluripotent stem cells (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/National Institutes of Health)

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Different Posture Control an Early Feature of ASD

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on November 29, 2018

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized mainly by differences in communication and social behavior. However, motor delays and differences have also been observed in children with ASD. To date, studying these differences has proven difficult, with requirements for labor-intensive coding subject to human error.


What’s New: A recent study suggests that computer technology could be leveraged to gather more precise measurements of body movements by people with ASD. The researchers measured the degree to which children were able to control their posture, an indicator of neurological and muscular stability.


Focusing on 104 children between the ages of 16 and 31 months, the researchers found:


  • The 22 children who were ultimately diagnosed with ASD moved their heads at much higher rates than their typically developing peers when presented with a stimulus, such as a program on a screen.


  • These atypical movements appeared to be the result of a lack of muscular control, as opposed to being distracted.


Why it’s important: This article suggests that children with ASD exhibit differences in the control of their posture beginning in very early childhood. Computer technology can provide precise measurements of these patterned differences, providing a possible biomarker for ASD.

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What strategies work for parents of children with ASD?

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on October 30, 2018

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often presents with behavioral issues in children that can be challenging for parents to manage. These include irritability, non-compliance, defiance, and anxiety. These issues tend to be more severe in children with ASD than in those with typical development or those with intellectual disability.


What’s New: Researchers recently conducted a meta-synthesis, combining findings from 69 qualitative studies on strategies leveraged by parents of children with ASD who demonstrated “problem behaviors.” After summarizing these findings, they organized parental strategies into nine categories:


  • Accommodating the child
  • Modifying the environment
  • Providing structure, routine, and occupation
  • Supervision and monitoring
  • Managing non-compliance with everyday tasks and activities
  • Responding to problem behavior
  • Managing distress
  • Maintaining safety
  • Analyzing and planning


Their analysis revealed that parents of children with ASD had to leverage a greater number of strategies to pre-empt and address their children’s behavior than other parents. They also found that the strategies used by parents of children with ASD were more complex than those leveraged by other parents.


Why it’s important: This analysis suggests that parents of children with ASD tailor their approaches to manage specific differences in children with ASD – such as sensory sensitivities or rigidities in routine. Future research could formalize these strategies to aid parents raising children with ASD.

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Teens with ASD “Compensate” for Better Social Skills

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on October 10, 2018

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by differences in communication and social behavior. Research has suggested that people with ASD experience deficits in theory of mind – the ability to attribute emotions, beliefs, intents, desires and other mental states to themselves and to others – and that these deficits underlie the social differences perceived among people with ASD. However,  people with ASD vary widely in their social abilities. Are there any factor(s) that compensate for impairments in social skills?


What’s New: A recent study set out to determine patterns explaining why some young people with ASD seem to have better social skills than others. In total, 136 participants with ASD between the ages of 10 and 15 – chosen from those already enrolled in the Social Relationships Study in the UK – participated in the study, which involved a series of tasks and questionnaires.


The researchers identified two major groups of interest in this study:

  • Low compensators, who had low scores on both the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and the Theory of Mind assessment.
  • High compensators, who had high scores on the ADOS in spite of low scores on the Theory of Mind assessment.

High compensators had higher IQ and better executive functioning (i.e., self-control), as compared to low compensators. High compensators also had higher levels of anxiety than their low compensating peers.


Why it’s important: This article suggests that – contrary to popular belief – people with good social skills don’t have a milder form of ASD. Rather, they are compensating with their other strengths. The impacts of this compensation, including anxiety, merit further study.

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Small Study Shows Promising Results for 3i Play Therapy

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on October 2, 2018

Background: While no standardized treatments exist for individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), treatment strategies have been devised which vary based on the type and severity of symptom presentation. Relatively few studies have assessed potential changes in outcomes among children with ASD who undergo play therapy.


What’s New: A recent study evaluated a type of play therapy called 3i, which stands for “interactive, intensive, and individual.” The researchers administered the therapy – which consisted of sensory games (Phase I), symbolic play (Phase II), and interactive play with peers (Phase III) – to 20 French children between the ages of 2 and 14 over the course of 24 months.


The researchers found:

  • At the end of 24 months, participants showed significant behavioral and developmental improvement as measured by the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales (VABS) and Nidel Imitation Scale;
  • Communication also improved among the participants, with the assessed age of communication increasing by 34%;
  • Improvements in the VABS socialization score – which increased 83%, on average – occurred more dramatically among participants who had spent the most time doing the 3i regimen.


Why it’s important: This article suggests that 3i play therapy could improve developmental and behavioral outcomes in children with ASD. Future research could demonstrate which children show the most improvement using this technique, informing caregivers’ and clinicians’ decisions around therapy.

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Traits of Kids Diagnosed with ASD after Passing M-CHAT

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on September 18, 2018

Background: Diagnosis of ASD requires systematic and structured observation of a child by trained clinicians. While the diagnostic process is comprehensive, the first step is a screening – known as the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) – that takes place at children’s regular pediatric appointments when they are 18 months old.


What’s New: A recent study focused on children whose M-CHAT screenings were negative, but who later received ASD diagnoses. The researchers examined data from more than 68,000 children collected as part of the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study to look for children who passed the screening at 18 months but later received a diagnosis of ASD.


The researchers found:


  • 228 of the children who screened negative ultimately received ASD diagnoses, constituting “false negatives.”
  • Both boys and girls in the false negative group were rated as less social, less communicative, and having diminished gross motor skills compared to their counterparts in the true negative group. These effects were larger among girls, who constituted 16 percent of false negatives.
  • Boys and girls in the false negative group were also shown to have diminished fine motor skills and to be less sociable than their counterparts in the true negative group.
  • While boys in the false negative group were more shy than boys in the true negative group, the opposite was true of girls.
  • No difference was found between the false and true negative groups in terms of emotionality and activity.


Why it’s important: This is the first study to establish a profile of “false negatives” for the M-CHAT screening. Future research

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Research Needed on Resources for Young Adults with ASD

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on September 11, 2018

Background: Most research done to date on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has focused on individual factors and outcomes, such as the genetic basis for ASD or the effects of treatment on individuals. However, less academic attention has been given to people with ASD as a population – such as studies of the non-clinical interventions that may affect outcomes for this group.


What’s New: A recent article outlined a new research agenda, prioritizing topics for those studying ASD in the United States. These priorities stemmed from key informant interviews as well as a meeting of stakeholders representing the medical, therapeutic, educational, policy, and public health fields. Both of these processes were informed by a scoping review identifying gaps in existing research on ASD and the transition of youth into adulthood.


The stakeholders identified three main priorities for research targeting youth with ASD:


  • Studies describing the existing landscape of services and programs for people with ASD, including its availability and adaptability to individual needs;
  • Studies on the coordination of ASD stakeholders, including adults with ASD, their family members, and mental health organizations; and
  • Studies on the quality of life of people with ASD and how it varies among people, groups, and populations.


Why it’s important: This article sets out knowledge gaps in the existing research on ASD and provides a path forward for researchers interested in helping this population. The authors also emphasize the need for increased involvement of people with ASD in informing priorities and moving the research agenda forward.

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Autism Rates Higher in Women with PCOS & their Children

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on August 30, 2018

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is about four times as likely to occur in males than in females. Because of that trend, scientists have suspected an association between ASD and testosterone. Elevated testosterone levels during gestation have been linked to an array of neurological conditions – including ASD – in both male and female children.


What’s New: A new study explored the association between ASD and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition in which women of reproductive age produce excess testosterone. The researchers examined existing data from the electronic health records of more than 60,000 women in the UK – 26,000 with PCOS and 1,000 with ASD – from 1990 to 2014. They also looked at the data from more than 8,000 children born to mothers with PCOS.


The researchers found:


  • Women with ASD were more than twice as likely than their peers with typical development to have PCOS.
  • Women with PCOS were nearly twice as likely than their peers without to condition to have ASD.
  • The odds of having a child with ASD significantly increased among women with PCOS.


Why it’s important: This study suggests a connection between PCOS and ASD. Future research could lead to improved screening and treatment based on this finding.

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Brain Study Reveals Commonality between ASD and ADHD

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on July 29, 2018

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by differences in communication, behavior, and social development. Prior brain-imaging studies have shown pattered differences in the connectivity of brains of people with ASD compared to their typically developing peers. However, little research has compared the brains of ASD with those of people with other neurodevelopmental disorders.


What’s New: A new study compared the connectivity of brains of people with ASD to those of people with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), seeking commonalities. The researchers leveraged existing brain-imaging data from a total of 1305 people between the ages of 7 and 21 – 284 with ASD, 369 with ADHD, and 652 age-matched controls with typical development.


The researchers found:


  • Three main factors were common to the brains of people with ASD and ADHD, but not people with typical development.
  • The three factors were differences in the connectivity of the default mode network (a set of brain regions active when a person is daydreaming), the dorsal attention network (a set of brain regions active when a person is looking into space), and the salience network (a set of brain regions active in identifying important stimuli).
  • These patterns likely comprise a “neural signature” for people with ASD and those with ADHD, reinforcing existing diagnoses made for either disorder.

Why it’s important: This study reveals underlying patterns in brain connectivity in both people with ASD and those with ADHD. Further research could help define this “neural signature” for clinical application.


Image Credit: Nevit Dilmen, NIH 3D Print Exchange, National Institutes of Health. Shared via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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Pupil Dilation in Infants linked to Autism Risk

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on July 11, 2018


Background: Pupillometry is the study of how our eyes react to light. When it gets dark, our pupils expand; when exposed to light, they contract. Aberrations in the size of our pupils and the speed at which they react to light may reveal underlying neurological conditions. However, pupillometry has not been extensively studied in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).


What’s New: A new study investigated whether a relationship existed between pupils’ responses to light and autism risk in very young children. The researchers classified 208 infants between the ages of 9 and 10 months as either high risk (having an older sibling with ASD) or low risk (having no older sibling with ASD). They recorded sensory responses using cutting-edge eye-tracking technology while shining a light 16 times towards the infants’ eyes. They followed up at 36 months of age, classifying the children into ASD and non-ASD groups based on their scores on standard screening and diagnostic tools.


The researchers found:


  • Children who were ultimately classified into the ASD group experienced greater constriction of the pupils in response to light as infants. This finding was especially pronounced in high-risk infants who developed ASD later on.
  • Constriction of the infants’ pupils was also a predictor for ASD symptom severity. Those who experienced the greatest constriction tended to have the most severe symptoms.
  • Children who were classified as high risk but not diagnosed with ASD experienced different clinical outcomes than their low-risk peers, including cognitive and motor delays, attention deficits, and hyperactivity.


Why it’s important: This study highlights an autism marker – in both individuals and in families – based on sensory processing and related to the responsiveness of pupils to light in infancy. This finding could shed light on the underlying neurological basis for ASD and may eventually inform treatment approaches.

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