Exciting New Findings
 By Tiffany Torigoe

  The tenth annual International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR), one of the largest international gatherings of autism researchers, was held in San Diego this May. Hundreds of the most brilliant minds in the field presented groundbreaking findings in the areas of epidemiology, diagnosis, and treatment. Autism Speaks was one of the conference's sponsors and many of us from AGRE, the Autism Treatment Network, and the Autism Tissue Program were in attendance.

 There were some fascinating findings on environmental factors related to autism at the conference this year. In one study, Dr. Wendy Froechlich from Stanford University presented novel findings from the California Autism Twin Study (CATS), a collaborative study between AGRE (Autism Genetic Resource Exchange) and Stanford University. Dr. Froechlich’s data showed that there were no differences in the rates of ASD severity between identical and fraternal twins in their sample. This suggests that something beyond genetics is contributing to the severity of ASD symptoms. Dr. Froechlich speculated that while genetics still plays a strong role in ASD as evidence by the high concordance rates among identical twins, other factors, such as assisted reproduction, may play also play a part in the increase in ASD severity. However, much more research is needed to evaluate these findings.

Researchers from the Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders (M.I.N.D.) Institute at the University of California, Davis also presented preliminary data from the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study. The CHARGE data showed that while there was no relationship between maternal flu during pregnancy and autism, there was a relationship between maternal fever during pregnancy and autism. They also found that C-section deliveries were not a significant risk factor for autism. All of these data were derived from parental self-report questionnaires and medical records.  

 In addition to these findings, pollutants from highly trafficked freeways were also evaluated as possible risk factors for ASD. The CHARGE data showed that children who lived near freeways with high levels of traffic exposure were two times more likely to be diagnosed with an ASD within the first year of their life. The researchers also found that both local and regional air pollution exposure was associated with ASD, but again researchers need more data to capture when exposure is relevant and what factors are related to susceptibility.

 Another interesting study addressed the issue of assessing non-verbal individuals with ASD. Researchers in both the US and Canada used an EEG to measure Event Related Potentials (a measured brain response that is a result of a thought or perception) in non-verbal children. They discovered that although non-verbal children cannot verbally express their thoughts, they can possess strong intellectual capabilities and language comprehension. These findings will help researchers determine the best ways to assess non-verbal individuals with ASD more accurately.

 Additionally, there were over 10 different presentations and posters that came out of the Autism Treatment Network (ATN) at IMFAR this year. One interesting study examined the possible links between epilepsy and medical comorbidities in children with ASD. Researchers from Vanderbilt University, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Surrey Place Centre, and Columbia University Medical Center (all member sites of the ATN) found that children with ASD who have a history of seizures had an increased rate of gastrointestinal problems, sleep problems, and daytime behavior problems compared to children with ASD and no history of seizures. This information can help in the development of better interventions for people with ASD who have a history of seizures.

  IMFAR also hosted an innovative technologies demonstration where numerous students and researchers displayed robotic and technological devices designed to help individuals with ASD communicate and interact with others. Autism Speaks hosted an international design competition at the conference that engaged high school and college students all over the world to develop devices that could help people with ASD and their families connect with the outside world. First prize went to Greg Katz and Tom Rim from the University of Illinois College of Fine Arts and Applied Arts Industrial Design for Gobug. Gobug is an interactive toy that facilitates teamwork, social interaction, and communication for children with ASD. The device has multiple remote controls so the child with ASD and the other user(s) must work together to make the toy move faster, for example. This requires the child with ASD to be aware of what the other user is doing which encourages interactive play. Second place went to Noel Cunningham from the Maryland Institute College of Art for weSYNC. weSYNC is an application for the iPad, iPhone or the web where you can house information about a child’s caregivers, therapists, doctors, and teachers as well as track goals set for the child and progress throughout therapy and school. This app is accessible to all parties involved in the child’s life including parents, doctors, teachers, and therapists so it allows for better communication between all parties in a centralized space. Third prize went to Cameron Zotter, also from the Maryland Institute College of Arts, for Visual Watch. Visual Watch is a large watch for a child with ASD to wear that contains digital picture cards to assist with visualizing time and communication. It is customizable and new picture cards can be uploaded to the watch by parents.

 While many of the studies presented at IMFAR provided insight into possible risk factors and causal pathways for ASD as well as improvements on diagnosis and treatment, the take home message from almost every researcher was that more data was needed to confirm or replicate their findings. Autism Speaks funded many of the studies presented at IMFAR and continues to provide families with opportunities to help as well. Families can donate their time by participating in a multitude of research studies. For more information, please visit: http://www.autismspeaks.org/participate/index.php

 All of the research presented at IMFAR not only showed me how much autism truly is a global concern but confirms my hopes that we are getting much closer to understanding this complex disorder.