Characterising the cognitive phenotype of autism spectrum disorders

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Unlisted

Abstract

Understanding how cognition relates to behaviour in children with autism spectrum disorders is critical to the establishment of the links between genes, brain development and behaviour. Although some aspects of the cognitive ‘phenotype’ of autism have been well characterised, to date the approach to identifying the profile of strengths and impairments has been piecemeal. Few studies have included children across the breadth of the autism spectrum, most have employed small samples and none to date has employed a population-representative sample. The proposed study represents a significant step forward for cognitive research in the UK in terms of the size and representativeness of the sample, the broad range of cognitive domains studied, the focus on studying cognitive in tandem with behaviour and the link to recognised clinical subtypes of autism. The study will establish the cognitive domains (social orientation, emotion processing, theory of mind, executive function, central coherence, perceptual processing) in which impairments are associated with the core behavioural features of autism spectrum disorders (social reciprocity, communication, repetitive behaviours). In addition, the study will allow us to test if meaningful subgroups exist with broader autistic spectrum.

Technical Summary

Understanding how the cognitive phenotype of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) relates to the behavioural phenotype is a critical signpost to the establishment of the links between genes, brain development and behaviour. This is necessary in order to identify priority areas within the broad cognitive domain for future research (e.g. neuroimaging studies, approaches to identify cognitive endophenotypes in genetic studies). Although some aspects of the cognitive phenotype of ASD have been well characterised, to date the approach to identifying the profile of strengths and impairments has been piecemeal. Few studies have included children across the breadth of the autism spectrum (in terms both of IQ and severity), most have employed small samples and none to date has employed a population-representative sample. Studies have tended to measure abilities in one cognitive domain (or at most two domains) only and most have investigated cognition in isolation. Few have attempted to establish associations between cognitive processing impairments and behaviour and adaptation, despite the fact that such difficulties are especially burdensome for families. Few studies have attempted to identify differences in cognitive processing style that might result in clinically recognised subtypes of ASD that require different approaches to behavioural and psychopharmacological treatment. The proposed study represents a significant step forward for cognitive research in the UK in terms of the size and representativeness of the sample, the broad range of cognitive domains studied, the focus on studying cognitive in tandem with behaviour and the link to recognised clinical subtypes of ASD. The study will establish the cognitive domains (social orientation, emotion processing, theory of mind, executive function, central coherence, perceptual processing) in which impairments are associated with the core behavioural features of ASDs (social reciprocity, communication, repetitive behaviours). It will investigate the extent ? at both the behavioural and the cognitive level ? to which the domains of impairment that characterise ASD are associated with each other or independent. This will allow us to test if meaningful subgroups exist. The study will establish the cognitive domains in which impairments are associated with behavioural psychopathology in children with ASD, specifically psychiatric morbidity and the behaviours rated as most challenging by parents. Lastly, we will examine the specific pattern of executive and sensory processing impairments that underlie clinical subtypes of children with ASD. These subtypes respond to different psychopharmacological agents, suggesting that different brain systems may be impaired resulting in specific patterns of cognitive impairments.

Publications

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Barrett B (2015) Comparing service use and costs among adolescents with autism spectrum disorders, special needs and typical development. in Autism : the international journal of research and practice

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Botting N (2016) Emotional health, support, and self-efficacy in young adults with a history of language impairment. in The British journal of developmental psychology

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Carter Leno V (2019) Exploring the neurocognitive correlates of challenging behaviours in young people with autism spectrum disorder. in Autism : the international journal of research and practice

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Carter Leno V (2015) Callous-unemotional traits in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. in The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science

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Chandler S (2013) Parent-reported gastro-intestinal symptoms in children with autism spectrum disorders. in Journal of autism and developmental disorders

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Charman T (2011) Defining the cognitive phenotype of autism. in Brain research

 
Description Research Grant
Amount $425,000 (USD)
Organisation Autism Speaks 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United States
Start 01/2012 
End 06/2016
 
Description Novel work on auditory processing in autism 
Organisation University of Cambridge
Department Faculty of Education
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We collaborated with Prof. Usha Goswami (Cambridge) an expert in auditory processing who had not worked in the autism field previously. This has resulted in one publication with data analysis ongoing.
Collaborator Contribution Brought expertise we did not have (in basic auditory processing)
Impact 19545576
Start Year 2006
 
Description MRC Autism Look Forward 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I summarised main findings at the January 2009 MRC 'Look Forward' in autism research at which non scientific members of the autism community (funding agencies; advocates; parents) were present.

None
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009