Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are extremely common, with prevalence estimated at 1 in 110 children in the United States. Fifty to 96% of children with ASD demonstrate impaired executive control-the ability to manage complex or conflicting information in the service of a goal. Development of appropriate executive control is relevant to public health because these skills are critical for success in school, the workplace, and social relationships. Executive impairments in ASD have been well documented, but have received virtually no intervention research attention. Further, development of neural systems underlying executive control in ASD and their contribution to social function and symptoms remain poorly understood. The proposed project has the following scientific goals: (1) to determine the neural basis of executive control in children with ASD using two well-established electrophysiological measures (K99 period);(2) to test whether individual electrophysiological differences in executive control are meaningfully related to the social function and symptoms of children with ASD (R00 period);and (3) to assess whether brief, focused training in executive control produces significant changes in the brain function and behavior of children with ASD (R00 period). These goals will be addressed using a common set of electrophysiological measures. During the mentored K99 phase, the neural response to executive control tasks by 30 children with ASD will be compared with 30 typically developing children. During the independent phase, 60 children with ASD will be randomly assigned to receive brief executive control training or to a waitlist. Individual differences in neural response and their relation to social ability will be assessed in all children prior to intervention. The major career development objectives are: the completion of Dr. Susan Faja's training in electrophysiology and the launching of her career as an independent scientist with the long-term goal of examining brain-behavioral changes associated with intervention. Dr. Faja is a clinical psychologist with a background in clinical research including development of a brief computer intervention for individuals with ASD. The proposed career development builds on current work as a senior postdoctoral fellow that employs electrophysiological methods with individuals with ASD. The specific career development goals are: (1) to provide training in electrophysiological methods crucial to investigating brain-behavior relationships related to executive control and response to intervention;(2) to address specific gaps in clinical and statistical training: (3) to support Dr. Faja's transition to an independent position, and (4) to foster skills in grant and lab management. The mentored phase will occur at the University of Washington, which has a strong record of training autism researchers and supporting career awards. Mentors include Drs. Sara Webb, Wendy Stone and Michael Posner, who provide considerable expertise in electrophysiology, professional development of clinical researchers, and executive control and its enhancement via training, respectively. The project is aligned with NIH's goal of developing a strong cohort of investigators to address the nation's behavioral and clinical research needs and with the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee Strategic Plan, which stipulates the need for bio-behavioral studies of individual differences and the development of novel treatments for school- aged children with ASD.

Public Health Relevance

Children with autism spectrum disorders (estimated to affect 1 in 110 children) frequently exhibit difficulties resolving conflicting information, a skill that ha been linked to social and academic functioning in typically developing children. This study has the goal of understanding the brain functions underlying these problem- solving skills in children with autism and their connection to perspective taking in social situations where conflicting perspectives are present. This information will be used to measure whether a brief, inexpensive training program specifically developed to improve problem-solving abilities in children improves the functioning of children with autism and reduces challenges faced by these children in academic and social situations.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Career Transition Award (K99)
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Study Section
Pediatrics Subcommittee (CHHD)
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Kau, Alice S
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University of Washington
Schools of Medicine
United States
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Altschuler, Melody; Sideridis, Georgios; Kala, Shashwat et al. (2018) Measuring Individual Differences in Cognitive, Affective, and Spontaneous Theory of Mind Among School-Aged Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord 48:3945-3957
Webb, Sara Jane; Neuhaus, Emily; Faja, Susan (2017) Face perception and learning in autism spectrum disorders. Q J Exp Psychol (Hove) 70:970-986
Faja, Susan; Clarkson, Tessa; Webb, Sara Jane (2016) Neural and behavioral suppression of interfering flankers by children with and without autism spectrum disorder. Neuropsychologia 93:251-261
Faja, Susan; Dawson, Geraldine; Sullivan, Katherine et al. (2016) Executive function predicts the development of play skills for verbal preschoolers with autism spectrum disorders. Autism Res 9:1274-1284
Kelemen, Linda E; Lawrenson, Kate; Tyrer, Jonathan et al. (2015) Genome-wide significant risk associations for mucinous ovarian carcinoma. Nat Genet 47:888-97
Faja, Susan; Dawson, Geraldine (2015) Reduced delay of gratification and effortful control among young children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism 19:91-101
Faja, Susan; Murias, Michael; Beauchaine, Theodore P et al. (2013) Reward-based decision making and electrodermal responding by young children with autism spectrum disorders during a gambling task. Autism Res 6:494-505
Herrington, John; Nymberg, Charlotte; Faja, Susan et al. (2012) The responsiveness of biological motion processing areas to selective attention towards goals. Neuroimage 63:581-90
Dawson, Geraldine; Jones, Emily J H; Merkle, Kristen et al. (2012) Early behavioral intervention is associated with normalized brain activity in young children with autism. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 51:1150-9