Skip to main content

Spectrum: Autism Research News

March 27th

Brexit blues

The United Kingdom began its official exit from the European Union (EU) on Wednesday, nine months after a contentious referendum on the issue. Many Britons feel uneasy about the departure, dubbed ‘Brexit.’ Scientists in particular face an uncertain future, with access to EU funds and ongoing collaborations up in the air.

Interviews with eight researchers affected by Brexit, published Wednesday in Nature, reveal a mix of anxiety and activism. Some fear remaining in the U.K. will limit their opportunities. Others are determined to ensure the British government secures the nation’s status as scientific leader.

“You can make a difference,” Dominic Shellard, vice chancellor of De Montfort University in Leicester, England, told Nature, calling on other scientists to get involved. “You can engage. You mustn’t feel impotent.”

Judgment call

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch has made some controversial rulings in the past, including one against the family of a boy with autism. The family had sued their school district for the cost of a private education, arguing the boy’s public school had failed to give him the education he was entitled to under the law.

In 2008, Gorsuch ruled the school district had met the bar for the boy. But a 2016 Supreme Court ruling trumped Gorsuch’s stance, stating a child’s education “must be appropriately ambitious in light of” his capabilities. Emily Willingham laid out the controversial case in an article for Forbes last week.

During his confirmation hearing, Gorsuch said he was sorry for ruling against the family. The boy’s father also testified at the hearing, saying, “Judge Gorsuch thought that an education for my son that was even one small step above insignificant was acceptable.”

The case shows how school systems have failed some children with developmental disabilities. An article in The Atlantic last week documents the fallout of this failure in Georgia, where some students with developmental conditions are segregated into programs that swap teachers for computerized lessons.

Honor roll

Huda Zoghbi, professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, won her second award in four months this week.  On Tuesday, she took home a Canada Gairdner Award in the amount of 100,000 Canadian dollars ($75,090). The award recognizes outstanding advances in biomedical science. The Gairdner Foundation has doled out 350 awards since forming in 1957. Among its awardees, 84 have gone on to receive Nobel Prizes.

In December 2016, Zoghbi won a $3 million prize from the Breakthrough Foundation, co-founded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Both prizes recognize Zoghbi’s role in discovering that mutations in a gene called MeCP2 are responsible for Rett syndrome. We spoke to her earlier this month about unraveling MeCP2’s role in the brain.

Gairdner Awards / 28 Mar 2017
Learning experience

April is National Autism Awareness Month in the United States. On Tuesday, PBS will air “Spectrum: A Story of the Mind” — a documentary about the sensory experiences of people on the spectrum.

“By seeing through the eyes of others, we can learn to empathize with different ways of being,” the website for the show reads. “Autism is not just a deficit or a lack of being normal. It means seeing, touching, hearing and feeling a different kind of reality.”


The Washington Post is also recognizing Autism Awareness Month. This week, the newspaper asked five parents what they have learned about love from their children with autism. The piece is loaded with valuable lessons, including a challenge to the notion that people with autism lack empathy.

“I find that hard to believe,” writes Jody Allard, mother of 9-year-old Charlotte. “Charlotte lacks a sophisticated understanding of how other people think, but she has an innate sense of how they feel.”

Charlotte is quick to recognize that someone is hurting, Allard says, even when the person is trying hard to hide their pain. “When we pass a homeless person on the street, she is moved to tears at the thought of someone living without a home,” Allard writes. “Charlotte doesn’t suffer from lack of empathy; she is overwhelmed by it.”

Beauty and brains

This stunning illustration earned the expert’s choice prize in the 2017 Vizzies Challenge — an annual competition honoring scientific visualizations. The image is the work of neuroscientist Greg Dunn of the University of Pennsylvania, and his colleagues. It depicts 500,000 neurons in the human brain.

Greg Dunn, Brian Edwards, and Will Drinker

Greg Dunn, Brian Edwards, and Will Drinker

National Science Foundation
Job news

Making a career move? Send your news to [email protected].