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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Heading to INSAR 2023: New research and sessions to address simmering tensions

by  /  2 May 2023
A photograph of Stockholm, Sweden’s old town at sunset.
Welcome back: This year’s annual meeting of INSAR will be the society’s first 100 percent in-person gathering since 2019.

Westend61 / Adobe Stock

This week, autism researchers from around the globe are convening in Stockholm, Sweden, for the first fully in-person meeting of the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) since 2019. As they head into the meeting, several attendees say conflict in the field is front of mind, given debates over the language used to describe autism and competing views on research priorities, which played out online and in the scientific literature this past year.

A panel plans to address some of these disputes head-on in a Friday session titled “Precision health for neurodiverse communities.” The central question at the session, says panelist Mary Doherty, founder of Autistic Doctors International and consultant anesthetist at Our Lady’s Hospital in Navan, Ireland, is: “Can we do biomedical autism research, and particularly genomics research, in a neurodiversity-affirmative way?”

The session is not intended to provide definitive answers to the question, but rather to serve as an example to spur future discussions, says panel chair Eva Loth, professor of cognitive neuroscience at King’s College London in the United Kingdom. “Whereas some find these two approaches highly compatible, due to a shared emphasis on how to best support diversity among autistic people, others have felt them to be polar opposites.”

Addressing the increasing polarization in the research community is “totally necessary, as this development is potentially harmful to the field and worries and frustrates many,” says Sven Bölte, professor of child and adolescent psychiatric science at the Karolinska Intitutet in Stockholm. “We need science to be about data and the best arguments and respecting each other’s approaches and perspectives — hard but kind discussions, not ideology.”

As of last week, 2,300 attendees had registered for the conference, up from 1,740 combined online and in-person attendees in 2022, according to INSAR spokesperson Adam Pockriss. Last year’s hybrid meeting enabled participants to attend either remotely or in person. This year, INSAR is entirely in person, but its organizers plan to make the keynote presentations available online in June, Pockriss says.

“I am excited that it is all in person this year,” says Carla Mazefsky, professor of psychiatry, psychology and clinical and translational science at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania. “I feel like the best part about INSAR is reconnecting with colleagues and making new connections.”

Others have mixed feelings about the loss of a virtual track. “While I can understand that many people prefer to attend in person, there are some groups of people (such as those who are clinically vulnerable to COVID) who may not be able to attend due to the removal of a hybrid option,” wrote Mark Taylor, principal researcher in psychiatric epidemiology at Karolinska, in an email to Spectrum.

There is also an equity argument in support of a virtual or hybrid format, says Dena Gassner, a doctoral candidate at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, and exiting co-chair of the INSAR Autistic Researchers Committee. Going fully in person makes the meeting inaccessible for would-be attendees who don’t have travel funding from their institutions, an impact felt disproportionately by autistic researchers and those from underrepresented backgrounds, she says.

Another change this year is that special-interest groups (SIGs) are scheduled to meet on Thursday and Friday at 5:30 p.m. local time, instead of 7:00 a.m. as in past years. The shift accounts for local culture and work norms, which dictate that meetings do not begin before 9:00 a.m., as well as travel time for participants; the conference center is located about 20 minutes outside of the city center, where many attendees plan to stay, Pockriss says.

“They do compete with oral presentations one day and posters on another, which is a bit of a bummer,” says Zack Williams, a medical and doctoral student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and co-chair of the Autistic Researchers Committee. “But if it works out well, I’m still hopeful that ‘SIG Happy Hour’ will be here to stay.”

Each poster session on Thursday, Friday and Saturday includes an hour of quiet viewing to accommodate attendees with sensory sensitivities. And, as in the past, the meeting features an autistic researchers’ meet-up area and a silent sensory room where attendees can go to take a break from the noise.

A new accommodation at this year’s meeting is a hearing aid system, available for any attendee.

“The setting is what makes this INSAR special for me,” says Brian Lee, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “To me, Stockholm almost feels like a second home. So much of my research is done with Swedish colleagues, using Swedish-curated data from Swedish participants, that becoming immersed in the environment is a must.”

Locals, too, including Taylor and Bölte, say they are excited to attend the conference in their hometown.

“I am very much looking forward to welcoming autism researchers and autistic attendees to Stockholm,” says Kristiina Tammimies, principal researcher at the Center of Neurodevelopmental Disorders at Karolinska.

She says she hopes that having the conference in Stockholm attracts Swedish media to write more about autism, its diversity and international research on the condition.

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TAGS:   autism, community