Skip to main content

Spectrum: Autism Research News

Community Newsletter: Autistic motherhood, synaptic imbalance, why neurodiversity is important for researchers

by  /  18 April 2021
Speech bubble formed by a network of communication

Illustration by Laurène Boglio

Hello, and welcome to the Community Newsletter! I’m your host, Chelsey B. Coombs, Spectrum’s engagement editor.

Our first post of the week comes from the Sheffield Autism Research Lab at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. The lab posted a link to its new paper in the journal Autism, “Intense connection and love: The experiences of autistic mothers.”

The study was small, including only nine autistic women with children aged 5 to 15. All nine had at least one child whom they believed to be autistic. But the study “represents the first systematic in-depth analysis of the experiences of autistic mothers presented from their own perspectives,” the researchers wrote.

Semi-structured interviews with the women revealed that they found motherhood enjoyable and rewarding, and had strong bonds with their children. But their experience was also different from that of neurotypical mothers, in part because it included negotiating others’ misunderstandings and being judged and dismissed. To better serve these women, professionals need to learn how autism presents during adulthood and how women mask their traits, the researchers wrote.

Jodie Smitten, a graduate student at Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K., pointed out a section of the paper that she thought was “so poignant.” It said, “The findings demonstrate that service-providers would benefit from training, ideally led by autistic individuals, on how autism presents in adulthood, masking, the potential for mismatching between emotional experience and facial expression, sensory needs (especially in pregnancy), and the double empathy problem.”

Amy Pearson, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sunderland in the U.K., wrote that it was a “delight to see it in print.”

Sarabeth Broder-Fingert, associate professor of pediatrics at Boston University in Massachusetts, tweeted, “Why does all the best #autism research come out of the UK? I love this paper!”

Our next thread this week is from Laura Andreae, senior lecturer in developmental neurobiology at King’s College London in the U.K. She summarized her new paper published in Molecular Psychiatry: “Cell-type-specific synaptic imbalance and disrupted homeostatic plasticity in cortical circuits of ASD-associated Chd8 haploinsufficient mice.”

The group wanted to study synaptic transmission in the prefrontal cortex of mice that had lost one copy of the CHD8 gene. Mutations in CHD8 are strongly associated with autism. The mice had an imbalance in their excitatory and inhibitory transmissions, as well as lowered neuronal output with decreased spontaneous firing — effects that varied by cell type.

“These findings therefore directly implicate CHD8 mutation in the disruption of ASD-relevant circuits in the cortex,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

Andreae also posed a question in her thread: “Could how neurons respond to network alterations be a key differentiator for different ASD risk gene mutations..?!”

Wei Wen, a postdoctoral researcher at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, wrote that it was a “cool characterization of developmental homeostatic plasticity deficits in the PFC of Chd8+/- mice!”

The Grubb Lab, headed by Matt Grubb, senior lecturer in neuroscience at King’s College London, tweeted that it was “Fantastic to see this lovely story out in the wild.”

Beatriz Rico, professor of developmental neurobiology at King’s College London, wrote that the “beautiful” paper was a “tour de force.”

Our final tweet comes from Kathy Leadbitter, a research fellow at the University of Manchester in the U.K., whose new work, “Autistic self-advocacy and the neurodiversity movement: Implications for autism early intervention research and practice,” was published in Frontiers In Psychology.

In writing this paper, Leadbitter tweeted, “I felt like I got things off my chest!”

She and her colleagues make the case that autism intervention researchers and practitioners need to understand and engage with autistic self-advocates and the neurodiversity movement.

“There is a pressing need for increased reflection and articulation around how intervention practices align with a neurodiversity framework and greater emphasis within intervention programmes on natural developmental processes, coping strategies, autonomy, and well-being,” they write.

Lorcan Kenny, head of research at the U.K.’s national autism research charity, Autistica, recommended people read the article “if you’re an autism researcher interested in interventions or if you’re an autistic person who is uncomfortable with the word intervention.”

Nicola Stewart, a school counselor in the U.K. who works with autistic people, said it was a “fantastic paper bringing together current research and practice, calling for more autistic engagement.”

“It’s great that things are changing in the way autism research is conducted and the respect shown to autistic people,” tweeted Caroline Hearst, autism awareness trainer at Autism Matters in the U.K.

Specialist speech and language therapist Dominique Hill responded, “Reducing ‘Autistic behaviours’ does not necessarily improve quality of life for an individual. Person centred care is so important.”

That’s it for this week’s edition of Spectrum’s Community Newsletter. If you have any suggestions for interesting social posts you saw in the autism research sphere this week, feel free to send an email to me at [email protected]. See you next week!