The Autism Research Centre (ARC) has seven major reseach programmes
The ARC pioneered psychological research into autism spectrum conditions, developing experimental methods to study difficulties in empathy, strengths in systemizing, and attention to detail. We are now also studying sensory issues in autism. Methods used in this program include computerized testing, gaze-tracking, galvanic skin response (GSR), observational coding, cognitive experiments, questionnaires, and psychophysics.
The ARC was the first to develop early screening methods to detect autism at 18 months of age, and test these at a population level, and has developed related instruments for screening of autism and Asperger Syndrome in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. These instruments also assist in phenotyping, so that underlying biological differences can be linked to their possible functions.
The ARC developed new educational software for teaching emotion recognition (the Mindreading DVD), and a children's animation for teaching this skill to preschool age children on the autism spectrum (The Transporters DVD). Both of these have been carefully evaluated to measure their benefits. We are also evaluating other interventions that promote empathy by harnessing the strengths in systemizing, such as Lego Therapy.
The ARC leads a unique longitudinal study of the role of fetal testosterone (FT) in child development by studying children of mothers who had amniocentesis during pregnancy and studying if FT plays a role in developing autism. We are also looking at the sex steroid hormones in blood or saliva samples in people on the autism spectrum. Peptide hormones such as oxytocin are also being investigated.
Autism and Asperger Syndrome are strongly heritable. The ARC conducts candidate gene studies, genome-wide scans and whole genome sequencing. We found an association between strong systemizing and number of autistic traits, so we are testing the genetics of both mathematical ability and autism. We test for rare and common variants through family studies or collaborations with large genetic resources.
Autism spectrum conditions involve atypical brain development and functioning. We study this using MRI (both structural and functional), ERP, DTI, and neuropathology. We also have a program of research using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) in which neurons are derived from people with autism, to recapitulate the growth of neurons 'in a dish'. This enables us to model brain development in autism prenatally.
Synaesthesia occurs when a stimulus in one sensory modality triggers an automatic perception in another modality (e.g. sound triggering colour). We published the first tests of genuineness of synaesthesia, brain scans of synaesthesia, and molecular genetics of synaesthesia. Recently we found synaesthesia is more common in autism. We are now exploring the genetic overlap between synaesthesia and autism.