The Autism Research Centre (ARC) has 12 research programmes, 6 of which are basic research (e.g. understanding the causes of autism), and 6 of which are applied research (e.g. evaluating interventions for autistic people and their families). The ARC aims to ensure its research portfolio balances basic and applied research. Each research programme has a range of projects.
The ARC conducts psychological research into autism, and pioneered the measurement of autistic traits, empathy, systemising, and sensory hypersensitivity. Research methods include computerised testing, gaze-tracking, observational studies, cognitive experiments, psychological questionnaires, and psychophysics. The ARC is currently undertaking a new study which will help to establish the brain basis of exceptional memory, and see whether this basis is different in autistic people.
The ARC studies brain development and brain function in autistic people using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) (both structural and functional), evoked response potential (ERP), and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). The ARC was the first to show atypical amygdala activity in autism, a part of the brain involved in emotion recognition and the experience of emotion. The ARC also uses induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) in a petri dish to model the prenatal development of nerve cells (neurons), derived from autistic people at the earliest stages of life. Using this method, the ARC was the first to show atypical neural rosettes (an early stage of brain development) in autistic people. The ARC also studies post-mortem brain tissue, from autistic people who have died and where the person or their next of kin have donated the brain for research.
Autism is highly heritable. The ARC conducts genome-wide association studies (GWAS), whole exome sequencing (WES), whole genome sequencing (WGS), and epigenetic studies. The ARC tests for rare and common genetic variants, often in collaboration with other research groups, such as the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the Institut Pasteur, and UCLA. The ARC also studies non-genetic environmental factors that interact with a genetic predisposition to affect the likelihood of autism.
The ARC pioneered studying the role of prenatal sex steroid hormones such as testosterone and estrogen in autism by studying mothers who underwent amniocentesis during pregnancy, and by examining these hormones in autistic people. Whilst autism is highly genetic, we know that genes alone cannot explain why some people are autistic. The ARC was the first to show that elevated prenatal sex steroid hormones, interacting with genetic predisposition, also influence the likelihood of autism. The ARC also investigates peptide hormones such as oxytocin, and how these hormones affect brain development and behaviour.
It used to be thought that autism was very rare (4 in 10,000 in 1978). Research from the ARC showed that autism was much more common, finding it was 1 in 100 in 2009, and that for every 3 known ‘cases’ of autism, there were 2 unknown cases, highlighting under-diagnosis. Autism is now known to be even more common (1 in 36 in 2023). The ARC conducts epidemiological research to understand this changing prevalence of autism. The ARC also tests whether autism is more common in certain communities. For example, the ARC provided the first evidence that autism is more common in ‘technology hub’ cities and in the families of engineers and others working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
Synaesthesia occurs when a stimulus in one sensory modality triggers an automatic perception in another modality (for example, sound triggering colour). The ARC conducted the first ‘Test of Genuineness’ of synaesthesia, and the first neuroimaging study of synaesthesia, and the first molecular genetics study of synaesthesia. The ARC was also the first to show that synaesthesia is more common in autistic people and to study the genetic overlap between synaesthesia and autism.
The ARC was the first to design screening measures (the CHAT and the Q-CHAT) specifically aimed at detecting autism at 18 months of age and testing these at a population level. The ARC has also developed several related instruments for autism screening in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. These are all versions of the Autism Spectrum Quotient or AQ. The AQ-10, a short version of the AQ, is recommended in the NICE guidance for the identification of autism in adults. Early diagnosis can help autistic people understand their differences and help them to access support where it is needed.
Around eight in ten autistic adults are unemployed. The ARC seeks to identify the barriers to autistic people’s employment, and to evaluate which reasonable adjustments can help to prevent discrimination and disadvantage in the workplace. The ARC is also studying the relationship between employment and mental health in autistic people and evaluating good practice in employment to ensure more autistic people can find and keep a job, and enjoy good wellbeing in the workplace.
Autistic children and teenagers are at elevated risk of under-achieving at school, of being excluded, and of dropping out of education. The ARC is investigating why and how many autistic young people become NEET (not in employment, education or training), and will evaluate interventions in the education system that can help autistic people to be included, or which can improve educational outcomes. The ARC developed a piece of educational software called Mindreading, which teaches emotion recognition to children and adults. We also developed a children’s animation called The Transporters, to help preschool age autistic children understand the causes of emotions, and the facial expressions that go with them. Both of these have been carefully evaluated to measure their benefits. We also conducted the first evaluation of Lego Therapy in the UK, which promote social skills and communication, by harnessing strengths in systemising.
The ARC identified that the criminal justice system (CJS) is failing to properly support autistic people, including failing to provide reasonable adjustments and failing to identify defendants as vulnerable individuals. Further research is required to ensure that autistic people can access justice in the CJS when they are arrested, and to understand why they are at a higher risk of being arrested. Staff at the ARC have also served as expert witnesses in legal cases where an autistic person has been arrested, to help educate the judiciary, the jury, and lawyers about the nature of autism and to translate autism research into practice within the CJS.
On average, autistic people face worse physical health outcomes and a life expectancy reduction of 16 years compared to non-autistic people. This is in part due to co-occurring health conditions, such as epilepsy, and to poor mental health (see separate programme). It is also likely due to social barriers in healthcare that autistic people face. The ARC conducts research to identify if autistic people are more at risk of developing certain co-occurring physical health conditions, and to evaluate the factors that could improve health outcomes.
Sadly, autistic people are at an elevated risk of developing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Inadequate support services, unemployment, stigma, and societal exclusion all likely contribute towards poor mental health. The ARC investigates the underlying causes of poor mental health, evaluates specific interventions that aim to improve wellbeing in autistic people, and formulates policy briefs to effect change in society. The ARC conducted the first large scale study of autism and suicidality and is evaluating suicide prevention interventions. The ARC also investigates ways in which autistic people can be vulnerable, including the risks of abuse, homelessness, exploitation, and victimisation, and how safeguarding can be put in place to mitigate these risks.