Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) cause difficulty with behaviour, communication, learning and social interaction. One in 88 children in Canada has ASD, and globally, the known prevalence of the disorder is rising dramatically.

Many people on the autism spectrum experience reduced quality of life, including mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical health issues, including digestive problems and sleep disorders. Families and other caregivers also endure immense emotional and financial pressures related to care and treatment.

These impacts make a strong case for concentrated, multidisciplinary efforts aimed at improving outcomes and understanding the causes of ASD.

Our ASD Research Project's Initiatives

Genetics Research Project

The Autism Research Group is investigating the genetic basis of differences in brain development and behaviour seen in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Using state-of-the-art whole genome sequencing techniques, our investigators are identifying specific genes that can cause autism. Many of these genes influence connections among brain cells, which may account for differences in language and intellectual ability as well as learning style seen in ASD.

Our project aims to assess how these genes influence developmental course in children with ASD, building on a national study of newly diagnosed preschoolers followed through to adolescence. We are examining how a child's genetic profile might be used to help anticipate the development of specific physical and mental health challenges in ASD, such as sleep problems and anxiety, to help advise families and tailor supports and interventions. 

Genetic discoveries can lead the way towards the development of new treatments for autism targeting specific molecular pathways.

Early Detection Research

The ASD Research Group is also studying early development in high risk infants - the younger siblings of children with ASD, in order to better understand what causes some infants to be more vulnerable to developing the disorder, and to identify the earliest signs of ASD to help advance diagnostic practice. Building on a decade of behavioural research, our investigators are using innovative technologies to examine how early positive and negative emotional responses and patterns of orienting attention may provide clues to which infants are at highest risk of ASD.

We are also examining whether behavioural markers, including those currently under study, combined with genetic testing, could help identify children at risk of ASD even earlier. We are leading an international effort to improve prediction of ASD based on behavioural and genetic biomarkers, which could help transform early detection of the disorder.

Knowledge Translation

Kids Brain Health Network's Autism research Group is committed to working with key stakeholders (including persons with ASD and parents, clinicians, health and policy decision-makers, and industry partners) to ensure that these discoveries are meaningful to families and society as a whole, so that we can optimally capitalize on new genomic advances and deliver them to the broader community in the most effective way.

We are collaborating with Kids Brain Health's Knowledge Translation team on a program where families involved in the Network's research projects will become actively engaged in the process of knowledge translation, with the intent of enhancing family participation in health research, while informing researchers' understanding of family needs.

Team Leads

Lonnie Zwaigenbaum
University of Alberta

Stephen Scherer
University of Toronto

Project Proposal Summary

Click here to view a PDF of the project summary.

Web Resources

Click here for a list of web sources on ASD.