The Autism Research Centre (ARC) has eight major research programmes.
The ARC pioneered psychological research into autism, developing experimental methods to study autistic traits, empathy, and systemising, and sensory hypersensitivity, for example. Methods used in this program include computerised testing, gaze-tracking, 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 autism screening in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. These instruments also assist in phenotyping, that is measuring observable characteristics or traits, so that underlying biological differences can be linked to their possible functions.
The ARC developed new educational software for teaching emotion recognition (see Mindreading), and a children’s animation for teaching this skill to preschool autistic children (see The Transporters). Both of these have been carefully evaluated to measure their benefits. We are also evaluating other interventions that promote empathy by harnessing strengths in systemising, such as Lego Therapy (see Bricks for Autism).
The ARC pioneers the study of the role of prenatal sex steroid hormones such as testosterone and estrogen in autism by studying mothers who had amniocentesis during pregnancy. We are also looking at the sex steroid hormones in blood or saliva samples in autistic people. Peptide hormones such as oxytocin are also being investigated. We are testing the effects of these hormones on brain development and behaviour.
Autism is strongly heritable. The ARC conducts genome-wide assocation studies (GWAS), whole exome sequencing (WES), whole genome sequencing (WGS), and epigenetic studies. We test for rare and common variants and conduct our genetic research through collaborations with the Wellcome Sanger Institute and UCLA, in the SPECTRUM 10K Study.
Autism involves 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 autistic people, 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. We also published the first evidence that synaesthesia is more common in autistic people. We are now exploring the genetic overlap between synaesthesia and autism.
This research programme aims to identify different types of vulnerability experienced by autistic people so that policy recommendations can be made and interventions can be evaluated. Vulnerability in autism can lead to abuse, social exclusion, unemployment, victimisation and poor mental health. We are also exploring the extent to which autistic people end up in NEET – that is, not in education, employment, or training, and how to prevent this outcome. We are also investigating how autistic people may sometimes become involved in the criminal justice system.