Kansas University at the frontline of autism research

With cases of autism on the rise, researchers at Kansas University are studying the disorder from several different vantage points, including how to identify it at an earlier stage and improve the social and communication skills of children who have it.

From using telemedicine to work with families in remote parts of the state to utilizing tablets to help autistic children communicate better, KU researchers are on the cutting edge of discovering ways to ameliorate the disorder, which has no medical detection or cure.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report late last month saying that the incidence of autism in America is surging. One in 68 American children now has some form of autism, the report said, up from 1 in 88 in 2012.

“Autism is being diagnosed with more frequency. But it hasn’t been entirely clear to the field whether the actual incidence of autism is increasing or it’s just being diagnosed at a higher rate,” said John Colombo, director of the KU Life Span Institute, which, through its 13 individual centers, conducts research on human and community development, disabilities and aging.

One of those centers, the Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training Center, has, since its founding in 2008, been looking into the causes, nature and management techniques of autism spectrum disorder.

One of the biggest autism-related breakthroughs at KU was professor Steven Warren’s 2010 paper revealing a vocal signature in very young autistic children that could help doctors diagnose the disorder at an earlier stage.

Colombo, the Life Span Institute director, is working on a research project that is searching for autism biomarkers, namely eye tracking and attention. He said he has found a dysregulation of pupil size in individuals with autism that could eventually lead to earlier diagnoses.

Children are generally found to have autism after showing symptoms in their language or social skills, usually after the age of 4. But if the research is eventually proven correct, said Colombo, “You could use pupil size to diagnose in kids before they’re even talking.” That’s important because, he added, research has shown the earlier you get autistic children into intensive intervention programs, the better their long-term outcomes.

Over at KU’s Neurocognitive Development of Autism Research Laboratory, researchers are working to help improve detection, screening and treatment of autism. One project has been analyzing autonomic nervous system responses, using technologies such as eye-tracking, pupil measurement, salivary responses and neuroimaging to identify biological indicators of autism.

A separate project, led by associate KU professor Nancy Brady, seeks to refine a test that evaluates the communication skills of people with intellectual disabilities, including autistic people, who often can’t speak.

Linda Heitzman-Powell, an assistant research professor at KU, directs the Online and Applied System for Intervention Skills program. OASIS trains parents, often through telemedicine to reach families living in rural Kansas (and, more recently, Alaska), on early interventions so they can work with their children at home.

Heitzman-Powell says it’s important to train not only service providers and parents of autistic children about this issue, but the community as a whole. Nearly every child growing up nowadays will have an autistic classmate, she said.

“‘One in 68 — it’s huge, so it’s going to take all of us being involved,” she said. “If you know someone who has a child with autism in your kid’s school, foster that relationship, invite them to birthday parties — just know they might have a meltdown. … If you’re an employer, create job opportunities for people with autism. If they act a little quirky, they’re not trying to be rude, they haven’t learned those social skills yet.”

Awareness about autism has definitely grown since the days when autistic children where incorrectly diagnosed with, say, childhood schizophrenia, but Steve Swindler, director of community program development and evaluation for the Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training, isn’t sure it’s enough.

“Autism awareness is really important. But when you get to a point where 1 in 68 kids has autism, we have to get beyond awareness. We have to get to acceptance,” he said. “We have to understand that kids are going to be in our community at every level of practice, from preschool to school to post-secondary. We’re going to have to give families and children and young adults with autism access to trained providers, to solid, evidence-based practices, which really give them access to the community.”