Connections newsletter

A Message from the Director

In April, we had the opportunity to celebrate neurodiversity alongside the global community during the United Nation’s Autism Awareness/Acceptance Month. This year, Morénike Giwa Onaiwu inspired more than 200 attendees in her deeply personal, virtual “More than Seeds” presentation, while our center faculty and staff shared their expertise in multiple special events, in various media outlets, as guest bloggers, and with local middle school students. We share highlights in this issue of Connections.

This has also been a busy time on the research front. Our center researchers have been developing novel ways of screening for autism using an app that can be downloaded on a smart phone or tablet. Results of this work were published April 26th in JAMA Pediatrics. Center researchers also published “A lost generation? The impact of the COVID‐19 pandemic on early career ASD researchers,” which describes how pandemic‐related disruptions may limit early-career autism researchers’ ability to continue in the field. In research published in Autism Research, center investigators show that educational classifications for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD) vary based on race and resources. This research suggests that children in rural communities and those of color are less likely to receive an autism diagnosis, limiting their access to autism-specific educational services. An overview of some of the research currently being conducted at our center is described in an “Extraordinary Discoveries” fact sheet.

It has been an exciting spring at the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. As summer approaches and we begin to enjoy a “more-social-less-distant” post-pandemic world, we continue our leading-edge research while we train and educate the next generation of scientists and advocate for policies that open doors to services for all. You can view the latest rules and plans to ease COVID-19 restrictions at Duke Health clinics on the Duke Coronavirus Updates website.

Thank you for staying connected with us. We look forward to the future with hope for better ways to serve more individuals on the spectrum and their families.

Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D.
Director, Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development


Center Researchers Show Smartphone App Can ID Autism Symptoms in Toddlers

A digital app, developed by our Duke Center for Autism investigators and colleagues from Duke's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has successfully detected one of the telltale characteristics of autism in young children, suggesting the technology could one day become an inexpensive and scalable early screening tool. The team created the app to assess eye gaze patterns of children while they watched short, strategically designed movies on an iPhone or iPad, then applied computer vision and machine learning to determine whether the child was looking more often at the human in the video, or objects. The study appeared in JAMA Pediatrics and was covered in multiple news outlets, such as CBS, NBC, Forbes, CTV (Canada), American Psychiatric Association News, and many others. Read the Duke University School of Medicine article here.

NC Education Classifications of ASD & IDD Differ Based on Race, Resources, and Location

Drs. Lauren Franz, Jill Howard, and Gary Maslow, investigators with the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, along with NC Central University's Dr. Danai Fannin and Duke Global Health Institute’s Dr. Eunsoo Timothy Kim, published research in the Journal of the International Society for Autism Research showing that NC students’ autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or intellectual/developmental disability (IDD) classification is influenced by the state’s urban–rural divide, the student’s race and/or ethnicity, and the availability of local resources. Differences may point to disparities that could have significant policy and service implications. Read the full journal article here.

Scientific Advances, Novel Autism Diagnostic Tools & Innovative Therapies

The Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development’s research program strives to make meaningful and lasting improvements in the quality of life for people with autism throughout their lives. Read about some of our scientific advances in our informational flyer, “Extraordinary Discoveries,” here.

Autism Speaks Names Top 10 Studies of 2020

Autism Speaks science staff and advisors named the 2020 studies that most powerfully advanced understanding, treatment and support of people on the spectrum. For its list of "Advances in Screening, Diagnosis and Interventions,” the organization included A Multisite Randomized Controlled Trial Comparing the Effects of Intervention Intensity and Intervention Style on Outcomes for Young Children With Autism, on which Center for Autism Director Geraldine Dawson, PhD, participated as an investigator. See what other studies made the list. 

Researchers Get Creative to Keep Global Studies Going Despite Pandemic

For the past seven years, center researchers have been working on a project alongside clinical psychologists, occupational therapists and research assistants in South Africa to adapt and evaluate an intervention by non-specialists for young children with autism. Duke Today highlighted these efforts in its April 28th article, “Reimagining Global Research in a Pandemic.”

Help Research Take Flight

The Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development recruits both individuals with and without autism for research studies in order to learn about the differences and similarities between these groups. By enrolling your child in a research study at the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, you and your child are directly contributing to the advancement of detection methods and treatment of autism spectrum disorders and their symptoms. It is also a learning opportunity for your child, who will get a behind-the-scenes look at what is involved in research. Visits are fun, involving many play-based assessments and individualized attention from research staff! When your child participates in a research study at the Center, he or she will receive a certificate recognizing their contributions to Duke autism research, and you will be compensated for your time. Visits are scheduled at times convenient for you! Currently we have studies aimed at children between 3-11 years of age. View current research studies on our website. Contact our staff at 888-691-1062 or Pro00054178


At the Duke Center for Autism, every day is “autism awareness day.” Each April, during the United Nations' Autism Awareness/Acceptance Month, we join with the global community to celebrate neurodiversity. At our featured event, Morénike Giwa Onaiwu inspired hundreds of participants with her deeply personal story, sharing her experience as a Black autistic woman, global activist, teacher, and mother of autistic children. Ms. Onaiwu encouraged her audience to embrace the diversity of the autism community, explaining, “All autism is ‘real’ autism… Autism is a spectrum and there is always more than one story to tell. There are dangers in a single story, because there is always more than one story to share and understand.”

 Did you catch our #Celebrateneurodiversities Instagram story featuring Duke Men’s Basketball Coach Krzyzewski, Duke leadership, autism self-advocates, and our own staff and faculty? (Follow us on Instagram to be the first to see all our videos!) 

Our Duke Center for Autism staff and faculty shared their expertise and advice on many platforms! Dr. Rachel Aiello, assistant professor of psychiatry & behavioral sciences and a Duke Center for Autism psychologist, was the featured guest on NY’s “Eye on Autism” radio program. Dr. Nate Copeland, Duke Autism Clinic psychiatrist and attending physician, joined Jeff Day, self-advocate and member of our Autism Center of Excellence Community Engagement Advisory Board, to share insights on the National Association of Mental Illness North Carolina’s “Spotlight on Autism” event. 

For the Camp Southern Ground “What Different Can Do” series, Duke Center for Autism Psychiatrist Dr. Tara Chandrasekhar explained the relationship between the brain and behavior, and how understanding this relationship can help make the world more inclusive. Dr. Laura Kirby, Duke Center for Autism clinical associate, spotlighted “The Importance of Mental Health in Autism” as a guest blogger for Orchid Exchange. To help our local schools celebrate, Dr. Kirby joined center clinicians Dr. Marika Coffman and Carla Wall, MS, to connect with Wake County, NC, middle school students and answer their questions about autism.



May is Mental Health Awareness Month

A new Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study of adolescents on the autism spectrum shares that "adolescents with autism were 90% more likely to have additional mental health or other conditions and three times more likely to have unmet health care service needs." Read the CDC study, “Health Status and Health Care Use Among Adolescents With and Without Autism in Early Childhood.” Visit "Resources" on our Duke Center for Autism website for links to information and organizations in our “Autism Toolkit - Resources Library” and on our “National Organizations” page.

The Duke Center for Autism wrapped up its 2020-2021 Autism Speaker Series in April. The popular series offered monthly virtual sessions featuring leading investigators, clinicians, and practitioners impacting autism research, interventions, and treatments. Watch for our 2021-2022 speaker line-up in a future issue of Connections newsletter.


What is Autism? Video Featured on YouTube

The new “Quick Learner: What is Autism?" video produced by Duke University Communications in collaboration with the Duke Center for Autism, was featured by the YouTube platform on World Autism Day, and has been viewed more than 300,000 times. Watch it here and subscribe to the Duke YouTube channel to see future “Quick Learner" episodes.

The Gut's Connection to Autism

Children with autism are up to four times more likely than their non-autistic peers to have GI-related problems. Watch the Spectrum News video, The Gut's Connection to Autism, to learn more. In a study published in the journal Autism, Duke Center for Autism Researchers establish that gastrointestinal symptoms may exacerbate repetitive behaviors, or vice versa. Understanding this more completely could one day lead to helpful interventions.

Getting Your Post-COVID Travel Plans Together?
Ease Planning & Prep with the Duke Center for Autism's Travel Toolkit

Our Travel Toolkit eases planning and helps caregivers support the sensory needs of neurodiverse children. Clinicians with the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, Tara Chandrasekhar, M.D., Rachel Aiello, Ph.D., Marika Coffman, Ph.D., and Carla Wall, M.S., loaded the Travel Toolkit with info, tips, and samples. NEW Social Narrative samples and tips have just been added!