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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
CASD Posters

Bridging gaps in autism care through technology

CASD Posters

CASD Faculty Member and Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Allison Ratto (top left); Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Marissa Miller, (top right); and Research Assistants, Eleonora Sadikova (bottom left) and Laura Saldana (bottom right) presented posters at ABCT.

Technology’s potential to improve care delivery and reduce human suffering were the key focus of discussion at the recent Annual Convention of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT), held in Washington, D.C.

Within ABCT’s Autism Spectrum and Developmental Disabilities Special Interest Group (ASDD SIG), presentations showcased tools that leverage technology to better meet the needs of both autistic people and the clinicians who care for them. Researchers from the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders (CASD) at Children’s National took center stage at the ASD focused group to share information about novel developments underway that harness technology for children and families.

Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., director of CASD, served as the keynote speaker for the ASDD SIG Meeting. She also chaired a panel, “Leveraging Technology to Improve Autism Acceptance and Treatment” and presented, ” Online Parent Training Modules to Improve Executive Function in Autistic Children” about the e-Unstuck and On Target Parent Training Study, which adapts CASD’s successful classroom-based Unstuck and On Target toolkit for children ages 5 to 10 to an online platform so more families can benefit from the program’s skills and strategies.

Dr. Kenworthy was honored with the 2018 Transformative Contribution Award from the ABCT Autism Spectrum and Developmental Disabilities Special Interest Group for her lifetime of contributions to better understanding and better interventions for young people with ASD.

“It was a special honor to receive this recognition from ABCT this year, when the annual meeting is here in our home city,” says Dr. Kenworthy. “The Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders is focused on developing technology solutions that deliver therapies to everyone who needs them, no matter where they live, and technology is one powerful and promising way we can bridge care gaps both in the Washington, D.C. region and really, around the world.”

CASD Talks

Dr. Lauren Kenworthy presenting during the panel she chaired (top); presenting to the ASDD SIG (bottom left); and receiving the ASDD SIG Transformative Award from ASDD SIG Awards Committee Chair, Dr. Tyler Hassenfeldt (bottom right).

In addition to Dr. Kenworthy, several other CASD researchers presented research during panels and poster presentations, including:

  • Panel Presentation: Efficacy of a Parent-Mediated Sexual Education Curriculum for Youth With ASD”– Cara Pugliese, Ph.D.
  • Poster presentations:
    • “Evidence of Enhanced Social Skills in Young Dual-Language Learners on the Autism Spectrum”- Allison Ratto, Ph.D. (first author)
    • “Exploring Contributors to Parents’ Ideal and Realistic Goals for Involvement in School Training”-Marissa Miller, Ph.D. (first author)
    • “Examining Caregiver Well-Being and Service Use between Latino and Non-Latino Caregivers”-Laura Saldana (first author)
    • “Pre-Pubertal Signs of Future Gender Dysphoria in Youth with ASD”-Eleonora Sadikova (first author)

The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies Annual Convention has been held for more than half a century. The gathering includes 3,500-plus mental health professionals and students who specialize in cognitive and behavioral therapies.

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!”

Little girl eating

Daily tasks harder for girls with ASD

Little girl eating

Researchers found that girls with autism struggle with day-to-day functioning and independence skills more than boys.

Researchers at the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National found something surprising in their recent study of executive function and adaptive skills. Girls, who often score well on direct assessments of communication skills, struggle more than boys with crucial tasks such as making a plan, getting organized and following through, as well as basic daily tasks like getting up and getting dressed, or making small talk.

“When parents were asked to rate a child’s day-to-day functioning, it turns out that girls were struggling more with these independence skills. This was surprising because in general, girls with ASD have better social and communication skills during direct assessments. The natural assumption would be that those communication and social skills would assist them to function more effectively in the world, but we found that this isn’t always the case,” says Allison Ratto, Ph.D., a psychologist in the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders and one of the study’s authors. “Our goal was to look at real world skills, not just the diagnostic behaviors we use clinically to diagnose ASD, to understand how people are actually doing in their day to day lives.”

Conducted by a team within the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, the National Institute of Mental Health and The George Washington University, the study is the largest to date examining executive function and adaptive skills in women and girls with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

The study collected parent-reported data from several rating scales of executive function and adaptive behavior, including the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function, Parent Form (BRIEF) and the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales-II (VABS-II). The group included 79 females and 158 males meeting clinical criteria for autism spectrum disorders, ranging in ages from 7 to 18 years old. The groups were matched for intelligence, age and level of autism and ADHD symptoms.

Little is known about autism in females

The findings are part of a growing body of research focused on how ASD may affect females differently than males. The ratio of girls to boys with autism is approximately one to three. As a result of the larger numbers of males, existing data is predominantly focused on traits and challenges in that population. This is especially true in clinical trials, where enrollment is overwhelmingly male.

“Our understanding of autism is overwhelmingly based on males, similar to the situation faced by the medical community once confronted with heart disease research being predominantly male,” notes Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders and the study’s senior author. “We know how to identify signs, symptoms and treatments for autism in males, but we know very little about unique aspects of it in females.”

The historical lack of specific discovery around how autism presents in females may contribute to misdiagnosis or delay, and prevent implementation of necessary interventions. Such delays can have a major impact on outcomes, as recent research has demonstrated the critical importance of early diagnosis and intervention in ASD.

“Our focus in caring for children with autism is equipping all of them with strategies and skills to allow them to function and succeed in day-to-day living,” Dr. Kenworthy continues. “This study highlights that some common assumptions about the severity of challenges faced by girls with ASD may be wrong, and we may need to spend more time building the adaptive and executive function skills of these females if we want to help them thrive.”

“Enhancing our understanding of how biological differences change the presentation of autism in the long term is crucial to giving every person with ASD the tools they need to succeed in life,” she concludes.