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.

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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Face-recording App May Screen for Autism

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on June 25, 2018

 

Background: Recent years have seen a huge surge in the number of apps created for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), with the current number in the Apple app store topping 1,000. Many of these apps are aimed at instilling academic and functional skills in individuals with ASD. Others help users find support and services or provide news and raise awareness about ASD.

 

What’s New: A new study explored the use of an app for screening children with ASD. The researchers developed an iPhone app to detect differences in emotions and attentiveness – two areas affected in ASD. The app recorded the reactions of children as they watched movies on an iPhone, and then coded their behaviors. In all, 1,756 families with children between the ages of 1 and 6 years old participated over the course of a year, resulting in 4,441 videos of children in their natural settings. In addition, 5,618 demographic surveys were received from caregivers.

 

The researchers found:

  • 32 percent of the participants were high risk for ASD, as defined by either having a caregiver report an ASD diagnosis having a high score on the M-CHAT ASD screening.
  • Video clips - which included bubbles, bunnies, mirrors, and toys and songs - were each watched by more than half of the participants.
  • Girls who were high risk for ASD demonstrated significantly less attention to the videos on bubbles, bunnies, and mirrors than girls who were low risk for ASD. This association was not the same for boys.
  • Children with high M-CHAT scores were less likely to have positive emotional reactions to the bubbles movie than their peers with lower scores.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that app-based method could one day be leveraged to help screen for ASD in children. Because the screening would take place in children’s home environments, the results could be more meaningful than in-office interactions.

 

Image Credit: Kaethe Richter Henning, University of New Mexico, downloaded from the NIH Image Gallery under a Creative Commons license


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Reactions to Robot Could Reveal Internal Patterns in Autism

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on June 7, 2018

 

Background: Biologically speaking, a genotype is an organism’s underlying genetic identity, made up of inherited factors. A phenotype refers to observable characteristics such as social behavior. An intermediate term endophenotype is used to define stable, measurable traits, observed in multiple individuals, with a clear link to underlying genetic makeup.

 

What’s New: A new study assessed whether artificial intelligence could help reveal endophenotypes of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  The researchers leveraged a female android robot, known as ACTROID-F, to interact with a total of 46 individuals representing four groups – adolescents (ages 13-17) with ASD, typically developing adolescents, young children (ages 1-5) with ASD, and typically developing young children. The robot was programed to smile, nod, move her eyebrows, and demonstrate other evidence of humaneness while interacting with the participants as they completed various tasks. The researchers administered a questionnaire to the adolescent participants and to the parents of the young children, measuring the degree to which the participants felt that the android displayed humaneness (i.e., whether their impression of her was natural, positive, competent, kind, conscious, human-like, responsible, nice, friendly, intelligent, and biological). They found that scores varied significantly between the participants with ASD and their typically developing peers.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that artificial intelligence could reveal an endophenotype for people with ASD. Further research could provide more information about the underlying genetic causes for these patterned differences.


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Inexpensive Brain Scans Could Predict Autism Spectrum Disorder

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on May 23, 2018

Background: A reliable biomarker for early detection of autism is critical. Electroencephalography (EEG), a technique for recording and mapping electrical activity in the brain – could provide such a measure. During this non-invasive and relatively inexpensive procedure, small metal discs called electrodes are placed on the scalp to detect fluctuations in the voltage given off by the brain’s neurons over time.

 

What’s New: In a new study, researchers assessed whether EEG data could accurately predict emergence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in very young children. They performed EEG procedure on 99 high-risk children (defined as having an older sibling with ASD) and 89 age-matched controls up to seven times, beginning when the children were as young as 3 months old and ending when the children were 3 years old.

 

The researchers found:

 

  • Patterns in EEG data allowed researchers to predict nearly 100 percent of ASD cases prospectively diagnosed using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) at either 18, 24, or 36 months of age.
  • The EEG data also helped predict the severity of ASD as early as 3 months of age.
  • Significant differences were evident between the EEG data of the high-risk versus  the low-risk group. These differences were most pronounced at 12 months of age.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that EEG could be a useful tool, along with behavioral analyses, for diagnosing ASD early. Research has shown that early diagnosis is associated with improved outcomes for children with ASD.


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CDC Data Show Increase in Autism Diagnosis

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on May 9, 2018

 

Background: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, regularly monitors communities to make estimates of the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) among children across the country. In 2016, the CDC estimated ASD prevalence of one in 68 for 8-year-olds based on data collected from 2010 to 2012. Prior to that, the prevalence among 8-year-olds was estimated to be one in 150.

 

What’s New: The latest CDC data – collected in 2014 – provide a new estimate for the prevalence of ASD among 8-year-old children: one in 59. To arrive at this figure, the researchers reviewed the records of more than 300,000 children in 11 states.

 

The researchers found:

 

  • The overall prevalence of ASD in 2014 was 16.8 per 1,000 – or one in 59 – in the sites surveyed.
  • That proportion provides a rough estimate for autism prevalence in the country; however, the results are not entirely generalizable as they come from only 11 sites.
  • The median age at which members of the sample group received an ASD diagnosis was 4 years and 4 months – down slightly from 4 years and 5 months in previous years.
  • The ratio of boys to girls receiving ASD diagnoses decreased slightly – from 4.5:1 in 2002-2012 to 4:1 in 2014.
  • While white children continue to have higher rates of ASD diagnoses than their black and Hispanic peers, that difference became less pronounced in 2014.

 

Why it’s important: The continued increase in ASD prevalence among children raises a major concern for clinicians and researchers alike. However, the leveling of diagnosis rates among various groups – boys versus girls, white versus minority children – suggests that ASD diagnosis may be improving among previously underrepresented groups. Further surveillance is needed to determine the factors contributing to ASD prevalence increases.


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