Thursday, November 16, 2017

Members of the Lonely Hearts Club?

Girls with autism may "mask" their symptoms,
making it appear as if they "fit in", but leaving them lonely.

Autism experts speculate that one of the many complicating aspects of diagnosing autism in girls and women may have to do with the way boys and girls are socialized differently. Nearly from birth, parents and other caregivers encourage girls to seek out social interaction, to smile, to be polite and socially accommodating; while in many cases, it’s more acceptable for boys to be more independent, defiant or less socially engaged. This increased attention to girls’ social development may lead them to work harder to “fit in”. The ability to act the part can often “mask” or “camouflage” their internal feelings. In other words, girls with autism are encouraged to follow norms of being friendly and outgoing while also attempting to cope with social difficulties.

Masking of symptoms could have far-reaching effects for females with ASD. Not only could it make diagnosis challenging, it may eventually lead to challenges with friendships and intimate relationships later on in life. In her research on autism and relationships, Dr. Laura Graham Holmes, a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Autism Research, has found some gender differences. Women with autism are more likely to be in romantic relationships compared to males with autism, but the reasons why are not yet known. Despite this, women still experience high rates of loneliness consistent with those reported by boys and men who have autism, suggesting that these relationships are not providing all of the social support that people need to feel healthy and happy. “Finding romantic partners and maintaining healthy romantic relationships is an important facet of adulthood for most people and can be challenging for anyone. Considering how women on the autism spectrum report that it can be difficult to navigate relationships, including how to avoid “red flags” and remain safe, we need more research on how to support women as they pursue fulfilling sexual and romantic relationships,” says Dr. Holmes. In light of recent research on the substantial impact of loneliness on longevity in the general population, these higher rates of loneliness in women with autism poses concerns for their overall quality of life.

Dr. Holmes is currently conducting a sexuality and relationships for women on the autism spectrum (ages 18-40 years) and their parents. Click here if you are interested in participating. To learn about additional opportunities to participate in CAR research, please visit

Um, Uh,… Unmasking Autism

New research on speech fillers such as "um" and "uh"
reveal sex-based differences in autism presentation.

In everyday conversation, speech fillers convey social context, filling normal pauses in speech and indicating whether a pause will be short, using “uh”, or longer, using “um”. Sex, age, and education also influence the use of “um” and “uh”- where women, younger people, and those with higher levels of education use “um” more frequently, and “uh” is more commonly uttered by men, older individuals, and people with fewer years of formal education.

As an expert in linguistics and autism, Dr. Julia Parish-Morris knew that previous research found that children with ASD tend to use speech fillers, specifically “um”, less frequently than their peers with typical development. However, no research had been done about whether the use of “um” and “uh” by females vs. males carried over to individuals with autism. Understanding this would provide a small – but telling - insight into social differences in boys with ASD compared with girls with ASD.

Dr. Parish-Morris and her team analyzed conversations from 49 boys and 16 girls with autism aged 6-17 years old and compared them to conversations with typically developing children of the same age. Dr. Parish-Morris’ research showed a subtle, but important, finding: while boys with ASD use “um” fillers less than frequently than their typically developing counterparts, girls with ASD used “um” nearly as much as girls with typical development.

“The findings of our study don’t conflict with prior research, but they did show that the previous findings were valid only for boys with ASD, and not for girls,” explained Parish-Morris. “In fact, along with other recent behavioral research on sex based differences in gesturing, these findings suggest some girls with ASD may adopt subtle gender-typical language patterns that may effectively ‘camouflage’ their social communication difficulties. This reinforces the idea that we need to find more accurate and appropriate ways of identifying these core symptoms in both boys and girls.”

Examining the use of ‘um’ and ‘uh’ is a small example of how established findings about ASD may differ for girls and boys. However, the implications are dramatic: what other assumptions are we making about girls with ASD, based on research done primarily in with boys?” said Dr. Parish-Morris.

The Center for Autism Research has many studies open to individuals of all ages- with and without autism. To learn how you can help us advance the science of autism, visit the Enrollment page on the CAR web site.

The Whys of Gender Disparities in Autism

Researcher seek answers to why are females less likely
to be diagnosed with autism than males

1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism (ASD), but research tells us that females are less likely to be diagnosed than males (1 in 189 vs 1 in 42). In recent years, scientists have begun to ask why this disparity exists. Is it genetic? Does autism present differently in females? Do females “mask” their symptoms more than their male counterparts? And if so, why?

As researchers set out to determine why the rates of ASD differ in males and females, they find themselves grappling with additional questions: are the tools used to diagnose autism more sensitive to symptoms in males? If the diagnostic tools miss the symptoms of autism in females, how can researchers enroll proportionate numbers of females into studies to determine if in fact autism occurs at different rates?

While science grapples with these questions, The Center for Autism Research’s Medical Director, Dr. Susan Levy, stresses the importance of universal autism screening for toddlers and “having primary care physicians and non-autism physicians, comfortable in making a diagnosis, or suggesting a diagnosis may be probable” as the necessary first steps towards a more complete understanding of autism.

The Center for Autism Research has many ongoing studies and is looking for self-advocates of all ages and their families to help us advance the science of autism. For those interested in participating, visit the Enrollment page on CAR’s website for more information.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

CHOP and Floreo Awarded $1.7M NIH Grant to Test Whether VR can Improve Police Safety in Individuals with ASD

The Small Business Technology Transfer Fast-track award will fund new pilots with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Autism Research.

WASHINGTON, OCTOBER 31, 2017 – Floreo Inc., a venture backed tech startup developing virtual reality-driven autism therapy, today announced it has been awarded a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Fast-track grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to test “Immersive Virtual Reality as a Tool to Improve Police Safety in Adolescents and Adults with ASD.” The project will be undertaken in partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Autism Research (CAR), one of the country’s leading autism research organizations. Through the Fast-track grant, NIH awarded Floreo $1.7 million, with $289,000 to be applied to the recently started Phase 1 of the pilot.

The Floreo study will test a virtual reality
intervention for autism
Floreo’s virtual reality application provides immersive and engaging therapy intended to help individuals with ASD build real world skills. If proven effective, the application would be an affordable supplement to traditional therapy that is fun and engaging for the user, while allowing a supervising adult to monitor and guide the activities.

“This NIH grant will be critical towards testing the efficacy of VR as a science-backed tool for helping individuals with ASD,” says Vijay Ravindran, Chief Executive Officer of Floreo. “Recent events have raised awareness regarding the urgent need to help these individuals develop important social skills, such as how to interact with police officers. We are excited and grateful for the opportunity this grant will provide us to help this important community.”

“We know that practicing social interactions and a range of appropriate responses is an important support for people with ASD, who can become overwhelmed and freeze up more easily in unfamiliar social situations,” explained Dr. Julia Parish-Morris, Co-Investigator at CAR. “Floreo’s virtual reality application gives us a unique and important opportunity to help individuals practice critical interactions that will help them stay safe and increase their ability to live independently in their communities.”

The police safety pilot will begin testing this fall.

About Floreo Inc
Floreo is an early stage startup founded by Vijay Ravindran and Vibha Sazawal. Its application, which is currently in a pilot phase with various clinical-facing institutions, delivers safe, immersive, fun and affordable autism therapy through the power of virtual reality. The company is based in Washington DC. Find out more at

About the Center for Autism Research (CAR) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
CAR is a multidisciplinary research center of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP)with a three-part mission to discover the causes of autism in order to develop better treatments, support families affected by ASD, and provide world-class training for the next generation of master clinicians and scientists. Find out more at

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Combining Gaming + Biofeedback to Help Children with Autism Improve Social Skills

In a newly-launched gaming study, CAR researchers are incorporating biosensors to detect symptoms of anxiety in children as they engage in a space-themed 3D video game designed by BioStream Technologies, LLC, to improve eye contact and emotion recognition in children with ASD.

CAR researchers partnered with BioStream Technologies
to develop a video game to help kids with ASD

“We know that making eye contact during social interactions can cause a great deal of anxiety for many people on the autism spectrum,” explains John Herrington, PhD, the CAR psychologist leading the study. “The goal of this study is to evaluate the feasibility of using a video game as an intervention to teach children with ASD how to recognize and respond to social cues and emotions. If so, children with ASD could have access to an affordable and easy-to-use tool to build and maintain relationships, learn in traditional school settings, and even live independently.” 

Dr. John Herrington
The BioStream study is enrolling children with and without ASD, between the ages of 5 and 16. For more information about the study, please visit the Center for Autism Research’s Enrollment page or download the study’s informational flyer.  

A Prescription for Gaming to Treat ADHD?

A Prescription for Gaming to Treat ADHD?

From the humble beginnings of Pac Man and Donkey Kong to the faster-paced days of MarioKart, and now to the advent of Angry Birds and Pokemon Go!, children can enjoy the thrills of video games anyplace, anytime. For better or worse, gaming is everywhere, and becoming more sophisticated by the year. But a doctor-prescribed videogame? It may not be as far off as you’d think. Imagine an engaging iPad-based game that helps children improve their attention. One that has cutting edge graphics that rival commercial video games. 

Can video games and virtual reality help
children improve symptoms of autism?

A Wall Street Journal article recently explored the burgeoning field of gaming for health, and that’s exactly the aim of a study being led by CAR’s Dr. Benjamin Yerys. He is the principal investigator for a study testing of Project: EVO, a state-of-the-art video game designed by Boston-based Akili Interactive Labs, as an intervention for children with a dual diagnosis of autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder It’s a fun and challenging game to play in and of itself, but this is no ordinary video game- If successful, their game would be the first to be approved for medical use by the FDA, to improve attention in children with autism and ADHD. 

Dr. Benjamin Yerys
“Fewer children with ASD and ADHD diagnoses respond to medications for ADHD than what we see in children with ADHD,” explains Dr. Yerys, “so it is important to test if creative approaches to new interventions can help improve attention for this group of kids. Our team has just completed a pilot study to determine if Project EVO was acceptable and feasible for children with ASD and their families. We look forward to submitting these results for a conference presentation soon!”

Check out these articles from Buzzfeed and NPR to learn more about Project EVO.

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Using Virtual Reality to Teach Crucial Community Safety Skills

As youth on the autism spectrum transition to adulthood and gain increasing independence, their families often fret over their safety and their ability to respond in critical situations. Research at CAR has recently begun to delve into the world of virtual reality, with CAR scientists  Joseph McCleery, PhD, and  Julia Parish-Morris, PhD, partnering with tech startup Floreo, Inc., to test virtual reality based interventions to build social and community safety skills in adolescents and adults with ASD.  Unlike other interventions, virtual reality gives children the opportunity to learn and build skills in close-to-real-life experiences which may not otherwise be available.
Dr. Joseph McCleery (left)
Dr. Julia Parish-Morris (right)

“We know that practicing social interactions and a range of appropriate responses is an important support for people with ASD, who can become overwhelmed and freeze up more easily in unfamiliar social situations,” explained Dr. Parish-Morris. “Virtual reality technology gives us a unique and important opportunity to help individuals practice critical interactions that will help them stay safe and increase their ability to live independently in their communities.”

"Floreo’s immersive virtual reality platform is unique in that it allows a parent or therapist to directly observe the learner’s experience, and to provide interactive guidance and feedback in real time,” said Dr. McCleery. “We see significant potential for this intervention to be developed and applied in ways that have meaningful, positive impacts on real-world social, adaptive, and other important skills for individuals with ASD." 
 The Floreo study will test a virtual reality
intervention for autism

The Floreo study will be seeking participants aged 12+ diagnosed with ASD, beginning in October. Those interested in participating can visit  the Center for Autism Research’s Enrollment page for more information or download the study’s flyer. 

Related Posts:
Combining Gaming + Biofeedback to Help Children with Autism Improve Social Skills

A Prescription for Gaming to Treat ADHD?