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illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Focusing on the “little brain” to rescue cognition

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Research faculty at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., with colleagues recently published a review article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience that covers the latest research about how abnormal development of the cerebellum leads to a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders.

Cerebellum translates as “little brain” in Latin. This piece of anatomy – that appears almost separate from the rest of the brain, tucked under the two cerebral hemispheres – long has been known to play a pivotal role in voluntary motor functions, such as walking or reaching for objects, as well as involuntary ones, such as maintaining posture.

But more recently, says Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at the Children’s Research Institute, the research arm of Children’s National  in Washington, D.C., researchers have discovered that the cerebellum is also critically important for a variety of non-motor functions, including cognition and emotion.

Sathyanesan, who studies this brain region in the laboratory of Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National and scientific director of the Children’s Research Institute, recently published a review article with colleagues in Nature Reviews Neuroscience covering the latest research about how altered development of the cerebellum contributes to a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders.

These disorders, he explains, are marked by problems in the nervous system that arise while it’s maturing, leading to effects on emotion, learning ability, self-control, or memory, or any combination of these. They include diagnoses as diverse as intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Down syndrome.

“One reason why the cerebellum might be critically involved in each of these disorders,” Sathyanesan says, “is because its developmental trajectory takes so long.”

Unlike other brain structures, which have relatively short windows of development spanning weeks or months, the principal cells of the cerebellum – known as Purkinje cells – start to differentiate from stem cell precursors at the beginning of the seventh gestational week, with new cells continuing to appear until babies are nearly one year old.  In contrast, cells in the neocortex, a part of the brain involved in higher-order brain functions such as cognition, sensory perception and language is mostly finished forming while fetuses are still gestating in the womb.

This long window for maturation allows the cerebellum to make connections with other regions throughout the brain, such as extensive connections with the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the cerebrum that plays a key role in perception, attention, awareness, thought, memory, language and consciousness. It also allows ample time for things to go wrong.

“Together,” Sathyanesan says, “these two characteristics are at the root of the cerebellum’s involvement in a host of neurodevelopmental disorders.”

For example, the review article notes, researchers have discovered both structural and functional abnormalities in the cerebellums of patients with ASD. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an imaging technique that measures activity in different parts of the brain, suggests that significant differences exist between connectivity between the cerebellum and cortex in people with ASD compared with neurotypical individuals. Differences in cerebellar connectivity are also evident in resting-state functional connectivity MRI, an imaging technique that measures brain activity in subjects when they are not performing a specific task. Some of these differences appear to involve patterns of overconnectivity to different brain regions, explains Sathyanesan; other differences suggest that the cerebellums of patients with ASD don’t have enough connections to other brain regions.

These findings could clarify research from Children’s National and elsewhere that has shown that babies born prematurely often sustain cerebellar injuries due to multiple hits, including a lack of oxygen supplied by infants’ immature lungs, he adds. Besides having a sibling with ASD, premature birth is the most prevalent risk factor for an ASD diagnosis.

The review also notes that researchers have discovered structural changes in the cerebellums of patients with Down syndrome, who tend to have smaller cerebellar volumes than neurotypical individuals. Experimental models of this trisomy recapitulate this difference, along with abnormal connectivity to the cerebral cortex and other brain regions.

Although the cerebellum is a pivotal contributor toward these conditions, Sathyanesan says, learning more about this brain region helps make it an important target for treating these neurodevelopmental disorders. For example, he says, researchers are investigating whether problems with the cerebellum and abnormal connectivity could be lessened through a non-invasive form of brain stimulation called transcranial direct current stimulation or an invasive one known as deep brain stimulation. Similarly, a variety of existing pharmaceuticals or new ones in development could modify the cerebellum’s biochemistry and, consequently, its function.

“If we can rescue the cerebellum’s normal activity in these disorders, we may be able to alleviate the problems with cognition that pervade them all,” he says.

In addition to Sathyanesan and Senior Author Gallo, Children’s National study co-authors include Joseph Scafidi, D.O., neonatal neurologist; Joy Zhou and Roy V. Sillitoe, Baylor College of Medicine; and Detlef H. Heck, of University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke under grant numbers 5R01NS099461, R01NS089664, R01NS100874, R01NS105138 and R37NS109478; the Hamill Foundation; the Baylor College of Medicine Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under grant number U54HD083092; the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) Neuroscience Institute; the UTHSC Cornet Award; the National Institute of Mental Health under grant number R01MH112143; and the District of Columbia Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under grant number U54 HD090257.

INSAR 2019 logo

Autism’s heterogeneity on display at INSAR 2019

INSAR 2019 logo

At the INSAR Annual Meeting, presentations from around the world share a common goal: finding better ways to support and care for people with autism.

There are countless aspects of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to study, as evidenced by the 1,800-plus abstracts accepted at the 2019 International Society for Autism Research’s (INSAR) annual meeting. Presentations from investigators around the world ranged from pre-clinical studies of the genetic and biological underpinnings to community-based studies of diagnosis, assessment and treatment.

Along that broad spectrum of autism research, the work at Children’s National emphasizes better understanding of the clinical implications and community experiences of autism, with a particular focus on:

  • How well diagnostic and assessment tools capture the many differences between subpopulations of children with autism, whether based on sex/gender identity, cultural background or age
  • Understanding what children and adolescents with autism, and their parents, really need to help them thrive, and how to target supports to their unique needs
  • Finding the best ways to deliver vital information to autistic youth and their families in clear and accessible ways.

Researchers from Children’s Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders (CASD) presented nearly 20 scientific panels, oral presentations and posters at INSAR highlighting their most recent findings in these areas.

In addition to their own research, the CASD team attended sessions from INSAR’s global community of researchers, clinicians, and others with vested interest in the study of ASD. Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., CASD’s director, shared some of her key takeaways from the meeting with the ASD-focused publication Spectrum.

“At many levels of analyses, we are learning that a diagnostic label may not always be the best construct for identifying, treating or probing the biology underlying a person’s problems,” she said. “The keynote by Jason Lerch, professor at Oxford University, for example, was an elegant synthesis of imaging and genetic findings that made a strong case for the importance of exploring subtypes within autism and across developmental and psychiatric problems.”

“We also received another powerful reminder of our field’s complex heterogeneity,” Dr. Kenworthy noted. “Katherine Gotham, assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, was able to divide groups of autistic individuals in a study according to different criteria than the study’s initial design and effectively erase what appeared to be clear, statistically significant differences between typically developing and autistic participants. Her presentation demonstrated once more the importance of looking deeply at our data from many angles before drawing conclusions based on study outcomes.”

These studies, both at Children’s and elsewhere, all share one common theme: the importance of asking these questions and exploring the answers, with the goal of finding better ways to support and care for the millions of people around the world with autism and their families, no matter what autism looks like for them.

CASD presentations at INSAR 2019

Panel presentation: Clinical Presentation of ASD and Access to Care Among Girls

Allison Ratto, Ph.D., chaired a panel focused on the differences in performance on standard diagnostic tools based on the sex of autistic youth. The panel included presentations such as:

  • Sex Differences in Youth with ASD: Language Phenotype and Relation to Autism Behaviors from the ACE GENDAAR Network, presented by Sara Jane Webb of the University of Washington
  • Social Strengths of Autistic Girls: Sex Differences in Clinician-Rated and Parent-Reported Autistic Traits, presented by Dr. Ratto
  • Gender and Psychiatric Symptoms among Youth with ASD and ADHD, Alyssa Verbalis, Ph.D.
  • Evidence for Undertreatment of ADHD in Girls with ASD in the National Survey of Children’s Health, Kelly Register-Brown, M.D., MSc.

Oral and poster presentations

Oral session: Comparing Online and in-Person Parent Trainings to Support Executive Function and Self-Regulation: Feasibility, Acceptability, and Outcomes, presented by Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D.

Poster sessions:

  • Executive Function and School-Based Interventions
    • Self-Report and Parent-Report Reveal Similar Patterns of Executive Function Problems in Autistic Adolescents, presented by Rachael Clinton and Charlotte Jeppsen
    • What Services Are Families of Children with Executive Function Challenges Getting? What Do Parents Say They Want?
    • A Mixed Methods Approach to Evaluation of Student Acceptability of the School-Based Interventions Unstuck and on Target and Parents and Teachers Supporting Students
    • A New Way to Help Parents? Exploring the Impact of School-Based Interventions on Parenting Outcomes
    • Executive Function and Academic Achievement in Autism Spectrum Disorder
    • Development of an Interactive, E-Learning Tool to Support Parent Implementation of an Executive Function Intervention
    • The Moderating Effects of Implementation Factors on Improvement in Classroom Behaviors in Unstuck and on Target and Contingency Behavior Management
  • Youth with ASD making the transition to adulthood
    • Preliminary Outcomes of a New Executive Function Treatment for Transition-Age Youth with ASD, presented by Cara Pugliese, Ph.D.
    • Self-determination in transition-aged individuals with autism spectrum disorder.
  • ASD population subgroups, including gender and ethnically diverse:
    • Parent-Teacher Discrepancy in Ratings of Executive Functioning in Black and White Children with ASD, presented by Serene Habayeb
    • Capturing the Autistic Experience: Self-Advocates Develop Self-Assessment Tools to Inform Autism Diagnosis and Validate Neuroimaging Findings across the Gender Spectrum
    • Comparing Parent-Report of Non-Intellectually Disabled Asian-American Youth with ASD and ADHD to Their White Peers
    • Autistic Traits in Transgender Youth: Dysphoria, Stigma, and Barriers to Care
    • Higher Rates of Gender Diversity in Children with ASD Based on Self-Report, Not Parent Report
Pediatric Neurology Update Attendees

Pediatric neurologists get a primer on the state of ASD research and care

Pediatric Neurology Update Attendees

Neurologists who attended the 2019 Pediatric Neurology Update received a broad look at autism spectrum disorders, ranging from biology to clinical care and advocacy.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) took center stage for the afternoon sessions of the annual Pediatric Neurology Update in April. The meeting, hosted by the Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National Health System, brings together 150-plus pediatric neurologists each year to discuss critical research and clinical care of pediatric neurological conditions.

Led by the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders Director Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., the afternoon’s slate of presentations sought to give broad perspective of the current state of ASD research and treatment best practices.

“We know that the brain is different in autism, but many times we continue to define autism by behavioral traits,” Dr. Kenworthy told the crowd in her introduction. “Sitting between the brain and behavior often is cognition – how do you understand your world and interpret it?”

The afternoon’s presentations were organized to provide the audience with a clear picture of many facets of ASD research and treatment. Highlights included:

  • Joshua Corbin, Ph.D., director of the Center for Neuroscience Research, offered “New Insights into the Neurobiologic Underpinnings of Autism,” which mapped out some of the biological mechanisms of autism.
  • Adelaide Robb, M.D., and Dr. Kenworthy presented current clinical care outlines, with Dr. Robb focusing on pharmacological therapies and Dr. Kenworthy sharing successful strategies to improve executive functioning and day to day task management for school-aged children.

Attendees also received a taste of two current “hot topics” in autism research and care:

  • Kevin Pelphrey, Ph.D., presented recent findings on “Gender Differences in Autism Spectrum Disorders: Girls with Autism” calling attention to the fact that the current diagnostic standards may not capture some female-associated phenotypes of ASD.
  • Julia Bascom of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network brought the autistic person’s point of view to the table via her presentation: “Autism: Society and Government Challenges and Solutions,” which focused on her organization’s efforts to improve inclusivity in advocacy and research, which she sums up as, “Nothing about us without us.”

The session concluded with a real-world focused “Autism-Friendly Hospital Roundtable,” of six panelists from the clinical, advocacy, community and technology fields, who are all involved in hands-on practices to improve medical experiences for autistic children and adults.

  • CASD’s Yetta Myrick talked about her work to engage families of autistic children in discussions of research and clinical care programs, including the start of CASD’s first-ever Stakeholder Advisory Board.
  • Julia Bascom talked about some of the less-often discussed challenges for many autistic people who seek medical services.
  • Kathleen Atmore, Psy.D., and Eileen Walters, MSN, RN, CPN, provided an overview of Beyond the Spectrum, the clinical service at Children’s National that coaches providers and families in techniques to reduce the stress of routine medical visits for patients with autism and other developmental disabilities.
  • Amy Kratchman, director of the LEND Family Collaboration at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, talked about some of the autism-friendly strategies underway at her institution.
  • Michael O’Neil, JD, MBA, founder and CEO of the GetWell Network, Inc., previewed how GetWell and Children’s National are partnering on a new tool that harnesses app technology to bring better information to autistic children and their families after a new autism diagnosis.
  • Vijay Ravindran, CEO and co-founder at Floreo, demonstrated how it might be possible to reduce stress and create a calm peaceful autism-friendly environment even in the busiest of waiting rooms, by allowing the patient to escape via virtual reality.

The roundtable showcased how Children’s National and other health care institutions are using evidence-based strategies to improve medical care experiences for autistic people and their families. Ideally any provider, including pediatric neurologists, who cares for people from the autism community, can incorporate any or all of these strategies as a way to meet the unique needs of this patient population.

The content was so timely and relevant to the audience that many attendees stayed past the official end of the meeting to continue discussing best practices with the panelists and each other.

Claire Marie Vacher

Placental function linked to brain injuries associated with autism

Claire Marie Vacher

“We saw long-term cerebellar white matter alterations in male experimental models, and behavioral testing revealed social impairments and increased repetitive behaviors, two hallmark features of ASD,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead study author.

Allopregnanolone (ALLO), a hormone made by the placenta late in pregnancy, is such a potent neurosteroid that disrupting its steady supply to the developing fetus can leave it vulnerable to brain injuries associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to Children’s research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

In order to more effectively treat vulnerable babies, the Children’s research team first had to tease out what goes wrong in the careful choreography that is pregnancy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 babies is born preterm, before 37 weeks of gestation. Premature birth is a major risk factor for ASD.

The placenta is an essential and understudied organ that is shared by the developing fetus and the pregnant mother, delivering oxygen, glucose and nutrients and ferrying out waste products. The placenta also delivers ALLO, a progesterone derivative, needed to ready the developing fetal brain for life outside the womb.

ALLO ramps up late in gestation. When babies are born prematurely, their supply of ALLO stops abruptly. That occurs at the same time the cerebellum – a brain region essential for motor coordination, posture, balance and social cognition– typically undergoes a dramatic growth spurt.

“Our experimental model demonstrates that losing placental ALLO alters cerebellar development, including white matter development,” says Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist in the divisions of Neonatology and Fetal Medicine, and a developmental neuroscientist at Children’s National. “Cerebellar white matter development occurs primarily after babies are born, so connecting a change in placental function during pregnancy with lingering impacts on later brain development is a particularly striking result.”

The research team created a novel experimental model in which the gene encoding the enzyme responsible for producing ALLO is deleted in the placenta. They compared these preclinical models with a control group and performed whole brain imaging and RNAseq gene expression analyses for both groups.

“We saw long-term cerebellar white matter alterations in male experimental models, and behavioral testing revealed social impairments and increased repetitive behaviors, two hallmark features of ASD,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead study author. “These male-specific outcomes parallel the increased risk of brain injury and ASD we see in human babies born prematurely.”

ALLO binds to specific GABA receptors, which control most inhibitory signaling in the nervous system.

“Our findings provide a new way to frame poor placental function: Subtle but significant changes in utero may set in motion neurodevelopmental disorders that children experience later in life,” adds Dr. Penn, the study’s senior author. “Future directions for our research could include identifying new targets in the placenta or brain that could be amenable to hormone supplementation, opening the potential for earlier treatment for high-risk fetuses.”

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Placental allopregnanolone loss alters postnatal cerebellar development and function.”
    • Sunday, April 28, 2019, 5:15 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. (EST)

Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead author; Jackie Salzbank, co-author; Helene Lacaille, co-author; Dana Bakalar, co-author; Jiaqi O’Reilly, co-author; and Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist in the divisions of Neonatology and Fetal Medicine, developmental neuroscientist and senior study author.

Vittorio Gallo

Neurodevelopmental disorders: Developing medical treatments

Vittorio Gallo

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer, participates in the world’s largest general scientific gathering, leading panelists in a timely conversation about progress made so far with neurodevelopmental disorders and challenges that lie ahead.

The human brain is the body’s operating system. Imagine if rogue code worked its way into its hardware and software, delaying some processes, disrupting others, wreaking general havoc.

Neurodevelopmental disorders are like that errant code. They can occur early in life and impact brain development for the rest of the person’s life. Not only can fundamental brain development go awry, processes that refine the brain also can become abnormal, creating a double neural hit.  Adding to those complications, children with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Fragile X syndrome often contend with multiple, overlapping cognitive impairments and learning disabilities.

The multiple layers of complexities for these disorders can make developing effective medical treatments particularly challenging, says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National Health System and recipient of a coveted Senator Jacob Javits Award in the Neurosciences.

During the Feb. 16, 2019, “Neurodevelopmental Disorders: Developing Medical Treatments” symposium, Gallo will guide esteemed panelists in a timely conversation about progress made so far and challenges that lie ahead during the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, the world’s largest general scientific gathering.

“This is a very important symposium; we’re going to put all of the open questions on the table,” says Gallo. “We’re going to present a snapshot of where the field is right now: We’ve made incredible advances in developmental neuroscience, neonatology, neurology, diagnostic imaging and other related fields. The essential building blocks are in place. Where are we now in developing therapeutics for these complex disorders?”

For select disorders, many genes have been identified, and each new gene has the potential to become a target for improved therapies. However, for other neurodevelopmental disorders, like ASD, an array of new genes continue to be discovered, leaving an unfinished picture of which genetic networks are of most importance.

Gallo says the assembled experts also plan to explore major research questions that remain unanswered as well as how to learn from past experiences to make future studies more powerful and insightful.

“One topic up for discussion will be new preclinical models that have the potential to help in identifying specific mechanisms that cause these disorders. A combination of genetic, biological, psychosocial and environmental risk factors are being combined in these preclinical models,” Gallo says.

“Our studies of the future need to move beyond describing and observing in order to transform into studies that establish causality between the aberrant developmental processes and these constellations of neurodevelopmental disorders.”

DNA moleucle

PAC1R mutation may be linked to severity of social deficits in autism

DNA moleucle

A mutation of the gene PAC1R may be linked to the severity of social deficits experienced by kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), finds a study from a multi-institutional research team led by Children’s National faculty. If the pilot findings are corroborated in larger, multi-center studies, the research published online Dec. 17, 2018, in Autism Research represents the first step toward identifying a potential novel biomarker to guide interventions and better predict outcomes for children with autism.

As many as 1 in 40 children are affected by ASD. Symptoms of the disorder – such as not making eye contact, not responding to one’s name when called, an inability to follow a conversation of more than one speaker or incessantly repeating certain words or phrases – usually crop up by the time a child turns 3.

The developmental disorder is believed to be linked, in part, to disrupted circuitry within the amygdala, a brain structure integral for processing social-emotional information. This study reveals that PAC1R is expressed during key periods of brain development when the amygdala – an almond-shaped cluster of neurons – develops and matures. A properly functioning amygdala, along with brain structures like the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, are crucial to neurotypical social-emotional processing.

“Our study suggests that an individual with autism who is carrying a mutation in PAC1R may have a greater chance of more severe social problems and disrupted functional brain connectivity with the amygdala,” says Joshua G. Corbin, Ph.D., interim director of the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Health System and the study’s co-senior author. “Our study is one important step along the pathway to developing new biomarkers for autism spectrum disorder and, hopefully, predicting patients’ outcomes.”

The research team’s insights came through investigating multiple lines of evidence:

  • They looked at gene expression in the brains of an experimental model at days 13.5 and 18.5 of fetal development and day 7 of life, dates that correspond with early, mid and late amygdala development. They confirmed that Pac1r is expressed in the experimental model at a critical time frame for brain development that coincides with the timing for altered brain trajectories with ASD.
  • They looked at gene expression in the human brain by mining publicly available genome-wide transcriptome data, plotting median PAC1R expression values for key brain regions. They found high levels of PAC1R expression at multiple ages with higher PAC1R expression in male brains during the fetal period and higher PAC1R expression in female brains during childhood and early adulthood.
  • One hundred twenty-nine patients with ASD aged 6 to 14 were recruited for behavioral assessment. Of the 48 patients who also participated in neuroimaging, 20 were able to stay awake for five minutes without too much movement as the resting state functional magnetic resonance images were captured. Children who were carriers of the high-risk genotype had higher resting-state connectivity between the amygdala and right posterior temporal gyrus. Connectivity alterations in a region of the brain involved in processing visual motion may influence how kids with ASD perceive socially meaningful information, the authors write.
  • Each child also submitted a saliva sample for DNA genotyping. Previously published research finds that a G to C single nucleotide polymorphism, a single swap in the nucleotides that make up DNA, in PAC1R is associated with higher risk for post traumatic stress disorder in girls. In this behavioral assessment, the research team found children with autism who carried the homozygous CC genotype had higher scores as measured through a validated tool, meaning they had greater social deficits than kids with the heterozygous genotype.

All told, the project is the fruit of six years of painstaking research and data collection, say the researchers. That includes banking patients’ saliva samples collected during clinical visits for future retrospective analyses to determine which genetic mutations were correlated with behavioral and functional brain deficits, Corbin adds.

Lauren Kenworthy, who directs our Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, and I have been talking over the years about how we could bring our programs together. We homed in on this project to look at about a dozen genes to assess correlations and brought in experts from genetics and genomics at Children’s National to sequence genes of interest,” he adds. “Linking the bench to bedside is especially difficult in neuroscience. It takes a huge amount of effort and dozens of discussions, and it’s very rare. It’s an exemplar of what we strive for.”

In addition to Corbin, study co-authors include Lead Author Meredith Goodrich and Maria Jesus Herrero, post-doctoral fellow, Children’s Center for Neuroscience Research; Anna Chelsea Armour and co-Senior Author Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., Children’s Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders; Karuna Panchapakesan, Joseph Devaney and Susan Knoblach, Ph.D., Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research; Xiaozhen You and Chandan J. Vaidya, Georgetown University; and Catherine A.W. Sullivan and Abha R. Gupta, Yale School of Medicine.

Financial support for the research described in this report was provided by DC-IDDRC under awards HD040677-07 and 1U54HD090257, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National, The Isidore and Bertha Gudelsky Family Foundation and the National Institutes of Health under awards MH083053-01A2 and MH084961.

John Strang

Neuro- and gender-diverse teens find their voices

John Strang

“These autistic young people spoke a lot about their gender and gender needs and their descriptions of gender dysphoria were deeply emotional. One of the common characteristics of autism is reduced communication of feelings, yet many of these young people were very clear about the anguish that gender dysphoria caused for them and also their need for gender-related interventions,” says John Strang, Psy.D., director of the Gender and Autism Program at Children’s National Health System and study lead.

“They Thought It Was An Obsession” is the title of a qualitative study from the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, that provides an unprecedented glimpse into the development, thoughts, perceptions, feelings and needs of this poorly understood but significant subgroup of transgender and gender minority teens.

The title is an accurate reflection of the study’s analysis, which finds that the accounts of gender dysphoria in autistic transgender youth parallel those of transgender young people without autism. These findings stand in contrast to previous studies asserting the idea that gender dysphoria in autistic youth is driven primarily by superficial autism-related interests.

“These autistic young people spoke a lot about their gender and gender needs and their descriptions of gender dysphoria were deeply emotional. One of the common characteristics of autism is reduced communication of feelings, yet many of these young people were very clear about the anguish that gender dysphoria caused for them and also their need for gender-related interventions,” says John Strang, Psy.D., director of the Gender and Autism Program at Children’s National Health System and study lead.

Additionally, the autistic characteristics of these young people – which may reduce their concern for social conventions – often lead them to express their gender in individual and sometimes surprising ways.

“A transgender autistic young woman may wear a full beard and understand her gender identity as something completely separate from her appearance,” says Dr. Strang. “The cooccurrence of gender identity-diversity and autism may reveal something of the deeper nature of gender when the overlay of social gender expectations is reduced.”

The study followed 22 autistic transgender teens over nearly two years. It is the first study of its kind to track and follow up with this many youth with the cooccurrence over a significant period of time. The authors believe the report can serve as a guide for how clinicians, peers and families can better support and understand teens who are both neurodiverse and gender diverse.

The study’s methodology is also novel, as it features the inclusion of a slate of autistic gender-diverse coanalysts and coauthors who partnered in the interpretation of the youth provided data.

The coauthor group also included a retransitioned (previously transgender) self-advocate coanalyst to help provide context regarding the experiences and trajectories of the few study participants who moved away from transgender identity during the study’s duration.

Reid Caplan of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, an autistic transgender self-advocate and one of the study’s coauthors noted, “Too often in medical literature, the overlap between autistic and transgender identities is described in a way that pathologizes both of these communities. As an autistic transgender young adult, I feel privileged to be a coauthor of research that puts the voices of autistic and gender-diverse youth at the forefront. By giving these youth control over their own narratives, this study exemplifies a key value of the self-advocate community: Nothing about us, without us!”

Laura Anthony and Lauren Kenworthy IMFAR

Tools for diverse populations with autism

Laura Anthony and Lauren Kenworthy IMFAR

Laura Anthony, Ph.D., and Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., from Children’s Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders shared their knowledge and research findings at the International Meeting for Autism Research.

Researchers, doctors and parents of autistic children seem to all agree on one truth: If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism. That fact helps to explain why every spring, researchers and clinicians from around the world gather for the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) – it’s a key opportunity to connect with some of the most respected investigators and stakeholder partners in the research community, and to understand the similarities as well as the differences between autistic populations around the world. Through three days of keynote and panel discussions as well as hundreds of poster presentations on a variety of topics, IMFAR aims to exchange and disseminate the latest scientific and clinical progress in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) to this global audience of scientists and trainees.

This year, ten faculty members, staff and volunteers from the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders (CASD) at Children’s National attended IMFAR, and presented on a variety of topics related to better understanding the complex challenges of ASD, especially in diverse patient populations such as Latinos and young adults with gender dysphoria.

Laura Anthony, Ph.D., clinical psychologist within CASD, led a panel session entitled, “Addressing Disparities through Interventions in Diverse Community Systems,” which highlighted four community based intervention projects aimed at tackling the vast disparities that exist in screening, diagnosis, acceptance, inclusion and access to evidence-based care, based on populations.

“Each of these studies takes place in very different community contexts,” says Dr. Anthony, “but they share common themes of addressing disparities, using intensive stakeholder input and community partnerships to increase successful adoption, and achieving sustainability through harnessing the existing community-based resources to administer the interventions.”

The panel presentations featured studies from Children’s National as well as other research institutions:

  • Anthony’s co-investigation of the Sesame Workshop’s online tools called See Amazing in All Children and their effectiveness at providing useful education and resources for parents of children with ASD and at helping parents of non-ASD children feel more accepting of children on the spectrum.
  • Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., presented findings from the first study comparing two school-based cognitive-behavioral interventions developed by Children’s National and Ivymount, a school for children with autism, ADHD and other special needs. The interventions target executive function/problem solving and increase children’s availability for learning at school. As the interventions are provided by school staff in the school setting, they hold promise to reach the many children who otherwise have no access to specialized clinical care for these disorders. As evidence of this, approximately half of the children in this large scale project in low-income public/charter schools had not received a diagnosis of ADHD or autism prior to the study.
  • A study of the impacts of a stakeholder-informed primary care program to increase the rate of screening and referral for young Latino children (Georgetown University).
  • An analysis of one program’s efforts to increase the use of evidence-based practices in publically-funded mental health centers (University of California, San Diego; University of California, Los Angeles; and University of Illinois).
Allison Ratto Poster IMFAR

Allison Ratto, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the CASD, presented a poster entitled “Engaging Latino Families in ASD Treatment Research,” the first assessment of this type of effort to bring information and tools to Latino families in a way that makes them accessible.

Despite having vastly different designs, the panel also identified several common learned lessons from the studies. These include the amount of time required to build trusting relationships in previously neglected communities, and the need for creative and adaptive methodologies. Additionally, the importance of including individuals with ASD, their families and people in the community systems that serve them in stakeholder feedback sessions, and the need for specialized adaptations for each community’s unique needs.

Team members also presented ten research posters across a variety of specialty poster sessions, including Allison Ratto, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the CASD, who presented “Engaging Latino Families in ASD Treatment Research,” the first assessment of this type of effort to bring information and tools to Latino families in a way that makes them accessible.

“By developing an adaptive and flexible program, we were able to gain high levels of engagement from Latino families, who previously faced significant barriers to participation. The results show that if researchers take additional steps to build community trust and maintain stakeholder engagement, it is possible to recruit and retain study participants, and ultimately, meet the needs of underserved families.” Dr. Ratto concludes. Her poster was featured in a story in Spectrum News.

“IMFAR is definitely the premier opportunity to dialogue across disciplines and study methods,” says Dr. Kenworthy, who directs the CASD. “We hope that sharing our work at this prestigious meeting brings new understanding for our team and our colleagues in how to best meet the unique needs of psychologically, ethnically and economically diverse patients and families.”