Archived | Autism Speaks: 2008 Treatment Awards | Circa 2008 #NotAnAutisticAlly

2008 Environmental Factors Awards
2008 Basic and Clinical Awards (Winter)
2008 Basic and Clinical Awards (Summer)
2008 Epidemiology Awards
2008 Fellowships
2008 High Risk, High Impact Projects
2008 Pilot Awards (Winter)
2008 Pilot Awards (Summer)
2008 Treatment Awards

Special Interventions

Lois Black, Ph.D.
Oregon Health and Science University
$200,000 for 2 years

A computerized interactive game for remediation of prosody in children with autism

People communicate both by what they say (content) and how they say it (prosody). Prosody can refer to the rhythm, loudness, timing, stress, and melody of speech, and allows people to communicate things like emphasis, feelings, and attitudes. Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) tend to have deficits in both expressive and received prosody – they may speak in a flat or sing-song voice, and be unable to grasp feelings conveyed by others through prosody.

This study will focus on the computer-assisted remediation of expressive and receptive prosody in children with ASD. A computer program will be developed which consists of an interactive “drama book” containing a collection of videotaped social scenarios. These scenarios will represent different social situations requiring prosody, both receptive and communicative, highlighting prosody’s role in affecting others and driving the selection of events. Interpersonal dramas in the game can unfold in different ways, controlled by the ASD subject’s responses.

This research will develop a novel intervention for communicative difficulties in autism, which may help to improve the communication skills of autistic children.

James Laffey, Ph.D.
University of Missouri-Columbia
$199,975 for 2 years

Evaluating a 3D VLE for developing social competence

Deficits in social skills are a component of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Face-to-face interventions aimed at developing social competence in individuals with ASD have been shown to be effective, but a limited number of individuals can be served by these. The application of online and virtual learning environments has the potential to expand both the reach and the efficacy of such interventions. This project aims to develop social skills curriculum delivered via online, three-dimensional virtual learning environments designed to support the practice and development of social skills in youth with ASD.

The pilot project will involve the design and development of prototype 3D environments containing social and communicative learning activities, as well as an evaluation of the efficacy of the system for developing social skills in participants. This research will provide key data for the refinement of 3D virtual learning environments to best fit the needs of youth with ASD.

The 3D virtualization of social learning environments may provide a new method for the development of social skills in youth with ASD, and offers the potential for meaningful social interactions during the learning process.

Shrikanth Narayanan, Ph.D.
University of Southern California
$200,000 for 2 years

Robotics and speech processing technology for the facilitation of social communication training in children with autism

Children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have varying degrees of impairments in social interaction and communication. Methods for addressing these impairments often attempt to engage children with ASD in social activities that facilitate the development of basic social skills. However, it has often proved difficult to identify activities that are interesting and engaging for the spectrum of children of ASD. Children with ASD often respond socially and intellectually to simple robots and computers, but it remains to be determined whether such interactions can be harnessed to build communication and social skills. The present study will test whether existing robotic and computer technology can be applied for therapeutic use in the development of social skills in children with ASD.

Dr. Narayanan will examine which factors influence the extent to which robot or computer simulations are engaging to children with ASD. A pilot study with autistic subjects will then be conducted to examine whether robots or computers may be used to facilitate communication and interaction with the family and peers of ASD children. For example, an engaging social character in the form of an intelligent robot may serve as a focus for shared attention and interaction with a teacher or parent.

This study may enable future in-depth intervention studies of robot and computer-assisted therapies for communication and social skills for children with ASD.

John Rapp, Ph.D.
St Cloud State University
$193,204 for 2 years

Altering motivational variables to treat stereotyped behavior

Stereotyped movements are one of the defining characteristics of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), commonly taking the form of body-rocking, hand-flapping, and other repetitive movements. Recent work has shown that environmental events may cause individuals with ASD to engage in more or less stereotypy (stereotyped movements); therefore, environmental alterations have the potential to decrease the motivation for engaging in stereotypy.

The present study will test the efficacy of several possible methods of decreasing the motivations for stereotypic behaviors. Researchers will determine whether access to highly valued toys or objects can decrease stereotypy, and if these decreases continue after toys are removed. They will also evaluate whether stereotypy is lower after individuals are permitted to engage in stereotypic behaviors for an extended period of time. Finally, they will test the hypothesis that systematically pairing a specific stimulus with periods of low motivation to engage in stereotypy can result in the stimulus acquiring motivating properties, so that after a training period, presentation of the stimulus would decrease the motivation towards stereotypy.

This research may provide new methods of decreasing stereotypic behaviors in children with ASD, which could be used by teachers or parents during critical training periods in order to minimize interference from these behaviors.

Judy Reaven, Ph.D.
University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center
$200,000 for 2 years

Cognitive-behavioral group treatment for anxiety symptoms in adolescents with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders

Children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are at high risk for developing anxiety disorders. Cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT) are frequently used for children and adolescents with anxiety symptoms with good success. Recent studies have demonstrated a reduction of anxiety symptoms in children with ASD following group CBT interventions. The present study will examine the effectiveness of CBT in treating anxiety in adolescents with ASD.

Dr. Reaven and colleagues will develop modified CBT protocols for use with high school students with high-functioning forms of ASD and clinically significant anxiety. They will conduct initial studies using this protocol to treat 32 students with ASD and anxiety, assessing the feasibility and efficacy of this treatment, and making modifications where necessary.

This research will provide the basis for a larger, randomized trial to assess the use of CBT to treat anxiety in adolescents with ASD.

Pamela Wolfberg, Ph.D.

San Francisco State
$444,420 for 3 years

Integrated play groups: promoting social communication and symbolic play with peers across settings in children with autism

Children on the autism spectrum experience challenges in social interaction, communication and play and are at a high risk for being excluded by peers. In turn, this can deprive children of opportunities to develop their social and communicative potential. The Integrated Play Groups Model (IPG) is an intervention designed to promote social development in children with autism while building relationships with typical peers. IPGs also may have positive effects on the unaffected children participating, by increasing sensitivity and acceptance towards autism.

In this study, the effectiveness of IPG in developing social skills in autistic children and in raising awareness of autism in typical peers will be evaluated. Dr. Wolfberg and colleagues will examine whether 30 autistic children participating in a 24-week IPG program show greater improvements in play, social, and communication behaviors than a control group who do not participate, and whether these improvements remain stable over time. Behavioral improvement will be evaluated by observation and parent ratings. As well, researchers will conduct clinical interviews with the non-autistic peer participants in the IPGs to examine changes in their understanding of autism and social inclusion of their autistic peers.

Findings from this study will help in the understanding of how children with and without autism interact, and may provide further evidence-based support for this intervention in the treatment of autism.


Elaine Tierney, M.D.
Kennedy Krieger Institute
$900,000 for 3 years

Double masked placebo controlled trial of cholesterol in hypocholesterolemic ASD

Previous work from the Tierney laboratory has suggested that some individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have very low blood cholesterol levels. Low cholesterol may be an important marker for subtypes of ASD. It may also play a role in causing some types of ASD, as cholesterol is known to be important for several aspects of brain development.

The present study will test the response of individuals with ASD and low cholesterol to increased cholesterol in their diets. A randomized sample of youths with ASD will be given supplementary cholesterol over a 12 week period, and the effects of the treatment on behavior, communication, and other features of autism will be measured, compared to a group given placebo.

This research will help to determine whether adding cholesterol to the diet can improve behavioral problems seen in individuals with ASD and low cholesterol.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Laura Carpenter, Ph.D.
Medical University of South Carolina
$272,482 for 2 years

A randomized, double blind, placebo controlled study of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in autism

Fatty acids are essential for the development and function of the brain. Evidence suggests that deficiencies in fatty acids may be related to a range of neurodevelopmental disabilities, including autism. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements have been widely marketed as a “treatment” for autism, but have not undergone controlled studies to rigorously evaluate their usefulness in treating the symptoms of autism.

This study will carry out a double blind placebo controlled trial to determine the efficacy of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in treating symptoms of autism. Participants in the trial will be children diagnosed with autism, randomly assigned to treatment and placebo groups. The treatment will involve 12 weeks of daily omega-3 fatty acid supplementation. Behavioral outcomes will be assessed by parents, teachers, and blinded clinicians to examine changes in mood and behavior following supplementation.

This research will help support or disprove the usefulness of omega-3 fatty acids in the treatment of autism, and allow us to better understand the mechanisms by which fatty acids may exert their effects.

Robert Hendren, D.O.
UC Davis
$300,000 for 2 years

Double-blind placebo controlled trial of subcutaneous methyl B12 on behavioral and metabolic measures in children with autism

Studies have shown that many children with autism exhibit signs of oxidative stress, which causes cellular damage by the presence of highly reactive free radicals. Antioxidants may protect against the damaging effects of oxidative stress, and low antioxidant levels have been observed in children with autism. Nutritional supplementation by injections of the antioxidant methyl B12 is a current alternative medicine treatment for children with autism which has anecdotal reports of clinical improvements. However, the efficacy of methyl B12 to treat symptoms of autism and reduce oxidative stress has not been tested in controlled clinical trials.

This study will carry out an 8 week, double blind, placebo controlled clinical trial in 50 autistic children aged 3 to 8 years. Researchers will evaluate the subjects’ behavioral responses to methyl B12 treatment. Additionally, they will monitor the blood levels of antioxidant metabolites, to determine whether methyl B12 treatment can reverse the signs of oxidative stress observed in autism.

This study will help determine whether methyl B12 is an effective treatment for core features of autism, and may identify novel diagnostic markers for treatment responses in autistic subjects.

Effectiveness of B-12 | Full Report Here

Ann Le Couteur, Ph.D.
Newcastle University
$109,658 for 1 year

Parents and professionals attitudes to dietary interventions in ASD (PADIA)

Dietary interventions in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are prominent in the media and among families of children with autism. One such intervention is a diet free of gluten (predominantly found in wheat products) and casein (found in dairy products), referred to as a GFCF diet. However, the efficacy of the GFCF diet in improving behavioral symptoms of autism has not been determined. A large-scale, multi-site, randomized controlled trial will be needed to evaluate the impact of this diet in children with autism.

As an initial step towards such a complex and costly trial, this study aims to survey parents and key child health professionals in the United Kingdom to investigate their attitudes towards the use of the GFCF diet, and their preparedness to support a large-scale randomized controlled trial. These survey findings will determine what might help or hinder this research, and provide important general insights as to how to recruit and retain parents and professionals to studies addressing ASDs.

These findings will be useful in designing and carrying out both research into the dietary treatment of ASDs, and other research into complementary and alternative therapies.

Jason Morrow, M.D.
Vanderbilt University
$200,000 for 2 years

Markers of Oxidative Stress in Autism Spectrum Disorders

It has been hypothesized that oxidative stress may play a role in autism. Oxidative stress causes damage to cells via an excess of reactive free radicals, which could damage the brains of children at an early age. A difficulty in studying the role of free radicals in brain development is that there are few reliable methods available to measure the levels of free radicals present in human tissues. Dr. Morrow’s laboratory has identified a group of molecules called isoprostanes, which are formed when free radicals attack cells. There are hints that isoprostanes may be elevated in children with autism, which would indicate high levels of damaging free radicals.

In this study, isoprostane levels will be compared in autistic and non-autistic children, using the best methods of measurement available. The autistic subjects will be selected to vary in the severity of autism symptoms, so that researchers can determine whether children with more severe autism have higher levels of isoprostanes (and therefore higher levels of free radicals) than children with less severe autism.

If elevated levels of damaging free radicals are found to be associated with autism, treatments which lower the levels of free radicals could be valuable in treating the symptoms of autism.

Roseann Schaaf, Ph.D.
Thomas Jefferson Univeristy
$449,450 for 3 years

Effectiveness of sensory based strategies for improving adaptive behaviors in children with autism

Many children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have unusual responses to sensory stimuli. They may be overly sensitive to sensation and thus respond to stimuli too easily or too intensely. These responses to stimuli and the associated difficulties in processing sensory information (together referred to as sensory dysfunction) are significant factors limiting the child and family’s ability to participate in activities in the home and the community. Interventions such as occupational therapy have been used to specifically address these sensory dysfunctions, but their efficacy has not been evaluated in controlled studies.

The present study will evaluate whether a systematic intervention of occupational therapy is effective in decreasing sensory dysfunction in children with ASD. Subjects will work with occupational therapists with expertise in evaluating and treating sensory dysfunction, who will focus on enhancing independence and participation in activities. After occupational therapy, the subjects’ ability to participate in home, school and community activities will be assessed, and improvements in their sensory behaviors will be measured.

This study will provide parents and therapists with much needed data about the usefulness of occupational therapy to address sensory dysfunction in ASD, and has the potential to provide effective strategies to enhance participation in everyday activities.

Lana Warren, Ed.D.
Kennedy Krieger Institute
$180,353 for 2 years

Acupressure and acupuncture as an intervention with children with autism

Traditional Chinese medicine, including acupressure and acupuncture, may provide a new approach to treating behavioral problems in children with autism. Traditional Chinese medicine approaches autism, like all other disorders, as an energy imbalance that can be addressed by stimulating specific energy points and pathways.

The present study aims to develop a methodology for introducing acupressure and acupuncture to children with ASD and their parents. In a small randomized trial, researchers will assess whether intervention with acupressure/acupuncture improves attention, sleep, and behavioral problems. They will also examine the effect of parent-administered acupressure on parent-child relationships.

Acupressure and acupuncture could be a useful complement to conventional medicines and therapies in treating the symptoms of autism.

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