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ARRA Investments in Autism -- Communication Deficits

Public Health Burden
The communication problems of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) vary, depending upon the intellectual and social development of the individual. Some may be unable to speak, whereas others may have rich vocabularies and are able to talk about topics of interest in great depth. However, most have difficulty effectively using language, and many also have problems with word and sentence meaning, intonation, and rhythm.

Early Identification
Many children benefit from intensive interventional therapies to treat communication deficits in autism. However, these interventions are often more effective the earlier they are initiated. In order to better identify children at risk of developing autism, ARRA funding has allowed several new research efforts.
  • One project will develop an advanced acoustic analysis system of infant crying to enhance detection and accurate modeling of acoustic features of cry. The system will be validated against a large dataset of cry recordings, representing children without autism as well as infants that were later diagnosed with an ASD. This project could lead to a simple, non-invasive procedure that could identify signs of autism shortly after birth.1
  • Significant racial and ethnic minority disparities exist in the early diagnosis of ASD, often delaying minority access to early interventions and services. This research project will identify behavioral markers of normal and atypical development from 2 different minority populations. The results of this research will lead to culturally sensitive screening and evaluation methods that may decrease the age at which all children with ASD are diagnosed.2
Evaluation of Existing Communication Therapies
Families of autistic individuals utilize diverse treatment therapies, many of which have not been rigorously evaluated. ARRA funding is allowing researchers to examine the effectiveness of some commonly used therapies.
  • Sensory integration deficit (SID) is a controversial but widely used diagnostic classification in ASD, and sensory integration based treatment (SIT), which is routinely provided to children with ASD, has an extremely limited evidence base. This pilot project will lay the foundation for a large clinical trial to evaluate whether SIT is associated with improvements in communication and social skills in children with ASD.3
  • Literature and clinical research suggest that improvements in communicative initiations are associated with widespread improvements in communication and in related core symptoms of ASD. This study will explore a child-initiated communication intervention to determine if improvements in communicative initiations can be measured, if gains in related core symptoms of ASD occur, and if the rate of change can be assessed.4
Language Development in ASD
Understanding the normal and disordered development of language will help to inform the development of novel interventions and therapies. Research efforts are underway to examine the normal and aberrant development of the language centers of the brain, as well as the interconnectivity and activity of these centers with other areas of the brain.
  • Children with ASD often express affect (feelings or emotions) either weakly or in an aberrant manner. The goal of the project is to detail for the first time cross-modal integration of affect expression in ASD. By independently measuring affect expression in four expressive modalities (i.e., facial, gestural, vocalprosody, and vocal-content), researchers will quantitatively determine how affect is expressed in the different modalities.5
  • ARRA funding is supporting the expansion of an ongoing study exploring language comprehension and expression in children diagnosed with ASD and children without ASD. Additional study components will be initiated, bringing in multi-disciplinary researchers to record and analyze language use and development within the child’s home.6

  1. 1R21DC010926-01 -- Early Social Communication Characteristics of ASD in Diverse Cultures in the US and Africa -- Wetherby, Amy M (FL)
  2. 1R21DC010925-01 -- Early Detection of Autism through Acoustic Analysis of Cry -- Sheinkopf, Stephen J (RI)
  3. 1R34DC010927-01 -- Evaluation of Sensory Integration Treatment in ASD -- Camarata, Stephen Mark (contact); Wallace, Mark Thomas (TN)
  4. 1R34DC010924-01 -- Child-Initiated Communicative Interactions and Autism Intervention -- Koegel, Robert L (CA)
  5. 1R21DC010239-01 -- Expressive crossmodal affect integration in autism -- Black, Lois M. (OR)
  6. 3R01DC007428-04S1 -- Language Development and Outcome in Children with Autism -- Naigles, Letitia R (CT)

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