Autism Center - University of Washington
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Completed Research Studies

This page lists all completed research projects at the UW Autism Center. All of these projects are currently closed and are not looking for participants.


Cortical Connectivity Study
Michael Murias, PhD and Susan Faja, MS

To investigate how various parts of the brain communicate with each other and to clarify the neuropsychological basis of social cognitive impairments associated with autism. A variety of approaches have been used to investigate social cognition in autism. The current study seeks to understand how preschoolers organize and allocate their mental resources in situations with emotional significance and that are highly motivating.


Feature Processing In Adolescents with Autism
Principal Investigator: Sara Jane Webb, PhD

The Feature Processing in Adolescents with Autism study has three goals: (1) to increase our understanding of complex information processing in adolescents with autism, (2) to use EEG to measure brain activity during information processing tasks, and (3) to use eye tracking equipment to investigate the relationship between visual attention and performance.

This project seeks to extend our work on identifying cogntive profiles in adolescents with autism. Recent research into the cause of autism has sought to define core deficits leading to autism as well as broader phenotype markers of the disorder. Specific deficits in complex information processing have been proposed to account for some of these impairments. One way of addressing information processing is to investigate the manner in which individuals process complex items. Prior work has demonstrated that individuals with autism and their family members are faster at identifying the features or parts of complex items. In contrast, comparison groups and their family members process items faster at a global level, using holistic or configural strategies. To assess how adolescents process complex items or scenes, we will be measuring neural activity while individuals with autism view visual images.


Infant and Toddler Sibling Study
Principal Investigators: Debra Fein, PhD (University of Connecticut); Geraldine Dawson, PhD; Staff: Rebecca Brigham, BA

Funded by National Institute of Child Health and Human Development on Early Detection of Pervasive Developmental Disorders

Dr. Debra Fein and Dr. Geraldine Dawson, as well as other researchers at the University of Washington want to learn more about the early development of siblings of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). A primary purpose of this study, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, is to improve early detection and diagnosis of children with ASD and related disorders. The information gained in this study will improve early methods of identification, and also identify the types of interventions and child characteristics that are related to better outcomes for these young children.


UW Collaborative Program of Excellence in Autism
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Principal Investigator: Geraldine Dawson, PhD

By pooling a wealth of expertise in diverse fields including child psychopathology, developmental psychology, linguistics, developmental neurology, molecular biology, genetics, and statistical analysis, the project's coordinated approach to investigating the neurobiological and genetic bases of autism promises to yield valuable new insights. Combining the techniques of their respective disciplines, the researchers are addressing specific hypotheses about the nature of autism with multiple levels of analysis. Their aim is to fully explore autism's early development from the underlying biology to the resulting symptoms, such as language impairments and neuropsychological impairments.

Early Development Study

The program project is part of the UW Collaborative Program of Excellence in Autism and has several goals:

  • To deepen our understanding of the neurobiological bases of autism by investigating the relation between brain processing and structure and behavioral function over time. Well-specified hypotheses regarding the neurobiological basis of autism are being tested using multiple levels of analysis including anatomical, metabolic, electrophysiological, neuropsychological, and symptom levels. A better understanding of the neurobiological bases of autism is critical for developing more effective medical and behavioral interventions for individuals with autism.
  • To determine whether the syndrome of autism is comprised of meaningful and valid subtypes characterized by distinct structural and metabolic brain abnormalities, etiologies, neurocognitive profiles, developmental courses, patterns of symptom expression and responses to early intervention. We believe this information will elucidate neurobiological mechanisms in autism, be informative for designing more individualized and effective intervention strategies, and may be crucial for discovering the genetic basis of autism.
  • To determine how to recognize autism during infancy so that young children with autism and their families can be helped as early as possible, and the long term outcome for children and families can be improved.
  • To identify early behavioral and biological predictors of outcome in autism, including early precursors of language and social development, and to thereby shed light on the nature of the disorder itself and improve early detection and treatment of autism.

Family Study of Autism (CPEA)
The program project seeks to investigate the genetic basis of autism by determining the chromosomal location of autism susceptibility gene(s), and to enhance this effort by developing quantitative autism phenotypic measures, and by taking into account information regarding genetic heterogeneity/subtypes. To achieve this goal, Drs. Dawson and Schellenberg are analyzing genetic information from families in which at least two siblings have autism. Although autism is not rare, families with two siblings who have the disorder are. To assemble the hundreds of families needed for the study, families from across the country are recruited to participate. This UW research study is part of a larger network of 10 research centers funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), called the Collaborative Program of Excellence in Autism (CPEA). This study has now evaluated over 300 families across the United States for the study and recently received additional funding from the NIH to collect data from an additional 250 families, making the UW study one of the largest sibling linkage studies in the world.


UW STAART Center of Excellence in Autism
Principal Investigator: Geraldine Dawson, PhD

National Institute of Mental Health

The University of Washington is one of 8 STAART Centers supported by the National Institute of Mental Health. There are 3 projects associated with the UW STAART Center: The Toddler Assessment Project, the UW Early STAART Intervention Project, and the Neuroimaging in Adults with Autism Project.

Toddler Assessment Project (STAART Project I, II, and III)
The goal of the Toddler Assessment Project is to extend our work on identifying characteristics that distinguish very young children with autism from those with delayed or typical development. In addition to understanding the behavioral, cognitive, and neuropsychological differences in these populations, we seek to increase our understanding of the neurobiological bases of autism by studying abnormalities in brain structure (via magnetic resonance imaging) and brain chemistry (via magnetic resonance spectroscopy). To accomplish this goal, this study involves a comprehensive assessment of children with autism disorder, developmental delay, or typical development between ages of 18 to 30 months. Such information is critical for developing methods of screening and identification of children with autism under age 3. A high priority is to identify child characteristics that account for variability in outcome. To accomplish this goal, continued assessments of the children with autism disorder and developmental delay will occur.

Early STAART Intervention Study (STAART Project I)
The goal of the Early STAART Intervention Study is to assess the efficacy of early behavioral intervention for improving outcomes for young children with autism, and to examine how child neurocognitive factors moderate the effects of early intervention. Such knowledge will help inform decisions regarding appropriate, individualized intervention methods for children with autism, elucidate brain mechanisms, and shed light on questions related to brain plasticity. Children who enroll in the Early STAART Intervention Study will be randomly placed in one of two groups (community treatment as usual or UW STAART Denver Model). The group placement decision is made based on the “flip of a coin” and cannot be decided by families or individual research staff.In the community group, parents have the opportunity to access any treatment available to them in the community. Parents are encouraged and assisted in obtaining the best intervention services available in our community.

Children who are placed in the UW Early STAART Intervention participants will receive up to 25 hours of weekly intervention (15 delivered by UW Autism Center staff and 10 hours of parent-delivered intervention). One-on-one intervention will take place primarily in the child’s home twice daily for 1.5 hours each visit (for a total of 3 hours a day), although the family will frequently participate in sessions at the UW Autism Center. Parents, school staff, and other professionals working with these children will receive training and consultation to enable them to facilitate generalization and self-initiation of skills.

Parents of children in BOTH groups will participate in a 3-week course on autism, and will be provided with information and materials on the disorder. They will have the opportunity to meet with other parents of children with autism and to share experiences and information. All children will also receive annual diagnostic and cognitive evaluations to monitor their progress (1 and 2 years after initiation of treatment) and update recommendations for intervention goals.

FACE Neuroimaging in Adults with Autism (STAART Project IV)
Principal Investigators: Elizabeth Aylward, PhD; Todd Richards, PhD; Geraldine Dawson, PhD

The FACE Neuroimaging in Adults with Autism program seeks to use EEG (electroencephalography) and FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) methods to study social cognition in adults with an autism spectrum disorder. This is one of the four projects that comprise the UW STAART center. The goal of this study is to elucidate the nature of brain bases of impairments in early stage processing of face features, processing of face movements, and facial recognition in autism.