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The latest research for #AutismAwareness

A special collection of research articles for Autism Awareness Day and Month

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There are many types of autism; people with autism spectrum disorder can have challenges with social skills, speech and nonverbal communication, caused by a combination of factors, both genetic and environmental.

<strong>Hockey or watching the daisies grow? </strong> Alan Turing, World War II codebreaker and the "father of computer science," was thought to have Asperger’s syndrome. A drawing by Alan Turing's mother at his preparatory school, Hazelhurst, Sussex, 1923. This image, courtesy of Sherborne School, appeared in the book <em>Alan Turing: His Work and Impact</em> (Elsevier 2013)The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls) in the US has been diagnosed with autism. Understanding the causes and characteristics of people’s conditions across the spectrum helps them face these challenges, from childhood through to adulthood.

Autism may not be immediately evident; people with autism can have a range of learning, thinking and problem-solving abilities, from being gifted to having serious problems. On World Autism Awareness Day April 2 – and throughout National Autism Awareness Month in April –organizations such as the Autism Society are working to draw attention to the condition and promote acceptance in a society that often has a poor understanding of what it means to be autistic.

To support this initiative, we have collated the most recent and popular research and review articles on autism from across Elsevier’s portfolio of psychology journals, exploring clinical, experimental and developmental aspects of autism. The collection is free to access until October 1, 2017.

Memory interference in autism

One of the challenges people with autism can have is difficulty recalling things from memory – experiences in particular. In their article in Cognition, researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK studied people’s eye movements to determine to what extent the problem lies in the encoding – making a new memory – or retrieval – finding that memory again when a familiar situation is encountered.

In participants without autism, the researchers could predict recollection by tracking eye movements during encoding. However, in the group of people with autism this was not the case – based on eye tracking, there was a dissociation between the encoding and recollection of memories.

Understanding the neurological basis for autism and its characteristic challenges, like memory deficiencies, is key to supporting people with the disorder but also for diagnosis. In their study in Brain and Cognition, researchers from Southeast University in China analyzed the connections made in the brain to see if there was a pattern that could help doctors diagnose autism spectrum disorder.

The results revealed that the networks in the brains of children with autism were less efficient than those of children without autism, particularly in a region called the right prefrontal cortex. This, they say, suggests that it may in the future be possible to monitor that brain region to support diagnosis.

Futuristic approaches to autism – including virtual reality

Armed with a diagnosis, people can better manage their autism – including using modern technology. One research group, from the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, studied how children are using virtual reality to practice social skills.

The team assessed the result of five weeks of virtual reality social cognition training on 30 children ages 7 to 16. The result, published in Computers in Human Behavior, showed that virtual reality training can help improve performance across a range of social issues found in autism spectrum disorder, such as emotion recognition, attention and overall executive function.

Autism groups on Mendeley

There are a variety of autism groups on Mendeley on topics ranging from genetics to how teachers can make their classrooms more inclusive. Members can also start their own groups.

Mendeley Groups give researchers a dedicated space to connect with others, supporting discussion, discovery and innovation.

It’s becoming increasingly important to continue to develop new treatments and understand the range of challenges associated with autism; the prevalence of autism is rising rapidly in the US, with a 119.4 percent increase between 2000 and 2010, according to the CDC. There is also a consensus that only 40-60 percent of cases can be attributed to genetics.

New discoveries, then, may require a completely new approach if they are to have a valuable impact. One of the biggest limitations is getting enough people involved: despite the increase in demand for knowledge, there is still a shortfall, especially when it comes to investigating the interplay between nature and nurture.

Crowdsourcing research participants

Writing in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, researchers at Stanford University say crowdsourcing might be the answer. Autism networks – including family groups and nonprofit organizations – are keen to be involved in research, and as more people are diagnosed, there will be a growing pot of available funding. There are potential problems, such as biases, but the researchers believe contacting families around the world through social media could be an excellent way to gather the input needed to make discoveries.

Article collection for Autism Awareness Month

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The articles in this collection are free to access until October 1, 2017.

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