A critical gap identified in the 2011 lACC Strategic Plan is the dearth of knowledge about older children and adults who fail to acquire spoken language. Little is known about these individuals because current assessment tools and practices are not adequate for this population. More significantly, there are no models that explain why about 30% of the ASD population remains minimally verbal and no interventions that specifically and uniquely target this population in promoting spoken language. The goals of our ACE are to address these issues, bringing tools, methods, and approaches have drawn from others areas of speech, auditory, clinical, and computational neurosciences. Our ACE, located at Boston University, brings together researchers from across the university and collaborators from Harvard Medical School, Northeastern University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The interconnected projects in the ACE include: a novel intervention to promote spoken language in school-aged children with ASD (Project I);investigation of biological markers of treatment response and outcome (Projects I, II, and III);investigation of mechanisms that might underlie the failure to speak including (a) structural and functional connectivity impairments in key nodes of the speech production network according to the DIVA model (Project 11);(b) abnormalities in the perception, organization and analysis of auditory scenes as indexed in electrophysiological responses and neural oscillatory patterns (Project III);disruptions in excitatory and inhibitory neuronal pathways in key prefrontal cortical areas associated with language using high resolution methods to investigate white matter and axonal growth proteins in tissue samples (Project IV). The projects are united and served by an Administration and Data Management Core (A), a Research Training and Education Core (B) and a Clinical Core (C), which will carry out comprehensive assessments using standard and novel experimental measures to capture the heterogeneous phenotypes of minimally verbal children with ASD, and that will be used to explain variability in treatment response and mechanistic factors identified in the Projects. Together, the research conducted in our ACE will significantly advance our understanding of this neglected end of the autism spectrum, provide innovative approaches to assessment and treatment, pave the way for identifying biological markers predict who will fail to acquire speech, and highlight potential molecular targets for therapeutic interventions.

Public Health Relevance

The goals of the ACE are to advance our understanding of school-aged children and adolescents with Autism/ASD who fail to acquire spoken language, who together comprise about 30% of the ASD population. Because of the very significant financial and emotional burden this group places on families and society this research will fill important gaps in our knowledge of ASD, lead to changes in clinical practice and interventions, and provide important biological clues about the mechanisms that underlie spoken language and social communication.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
Specialized Center (P50)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZHD1-DSR-Y (54))
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Cooper, Judith
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Boston University
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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Bone, Daniel; Goodwin, Matthew S; Black, Matthew P et al. (2015) Applying machine learning to facilitate autism diagnostics: pitfalls and promises. J Autism Dev Disord 45:1121-36
Tager-Flusberg, Helen (2014) Promoting communicative speech in minimally verbal children with autism spectrum disorder. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 53:612-3
Tager-Flusberg, Helen; Kasari, Connie (2013) Minimally verbal school-aged children with autism spectrum disorder: the neglected end of the spectrum. Autism Res 6:468-78