UCLA CART Announces 2021 Pilot Grant Recipients

UCLA CART announces recipients of the 2021 CART Pilot Grant program to two research teams. The first team includes Dr. Connie Kasari, Dr. Cathy Lord, and Dr. Alexandra Sturm for their project titled: “Management of reproductive health and the impact of menstruation-related hormone change on autism-related impairment among autistic women.” The second research team includes Dr. Patricia Renno and Dr. Amanda Gulsrud for their project tilted: “Treating Externalizing Behavior Problems in Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Investigating a Novel Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Approach.” The CART Pilot Grant program funds one-year projects and/or feasibility studies for biomedical, epidemiological, or behavioral research. The purpose of these awards is to foster interactions and interdisciplinary research projects in the basic and clinical areas of autism. Many CART pilot grant investigators have published their findings and/or secured additional major funding for their work, and continue to push the field forward.

More about this year’s projects:

“Management of reproductive health and the impact of menstruation-related hormone change on autism-related impairment among autistic women”

-Research team: Dr. Connie Kasari and Dr. Cathy Lord (co-principal investigators), and Dr. Alexandra Sturm (co-investigator)

Women’s health, including both mental and physical health, causes significant challenges for autistic women. Specifically, during periods of reproductive changes (e.g., puberty, menstruation, menopause) autistic women struggle to manage their autism symptoms including their sensory sensitivities, social relationships, and emotions. Despite the significant impact on daily life, we know very little about autistic women’s health. This study aims to understand the frequency and impact of the reproductive health concerns of autistic women, describe ways that autistic women manage their reproductive health, and understand the association between menstruation-related hormone changes and autism symptoms and co-occurring mental health symptoms over the course of the menstrual cycle. To accomplish these study goals, autistic menstruating women ages 15 and above will be surveyed, and a subset will be surveyed multiple times during three consecutive menstrual cycles. The present study will begin to address the issue of autistic women’s reproductive health, with profound implications to the wellbeing of autistic women across the lifespan. Dr. Sturm says, “The pilot grant will be critical to document the reproductive health-related needs of autistic women, and create and opportunity to apply for larger grants that can look toward intervention approaches to support these needs.”

Dr. Connie Kasari has a long standing at CART, having trained during her postdoctoral years at UCLA under the mentorship of CART co-founder, Dr. Marian Sigman. Dr. Kasari is a professor of Human Development and Psychology. Her research focuses on targeted interventions for early social communication development in at-risk infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with autism, and peer relationships for school-aged children with autism, leading to the recognition of her therapy JASPER as an established evidence-based autism spectrum disorder (ASD) treatment.

Dr. Cathy Lord is a professor of human development and psychology. She is a practicing clinical psychologists whose primary focus is autism and related disorders across the lifespan from toddlers through adulthood. Her research and clinical work are aimed at improving methods of identifying strengths and difficulties in individuals with possible ASD and working with families and individuals to maximize independence and well-being for all concerned. This has involved the development of diagnostic instruments (the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule - ADOS, the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised – ADI-R, and the Social Communication Questionnaire-SCQ).

Dr. Alexandra Sturm is an assistant professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University and a visiting researcher at UCLA. She completed her PhD in Human Development and Psychology at UCLA as a member of the Kasari Lab, and a joint postdoctoral fellowship in autism research and quantitative methods with the Kasari Lab and the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST). She is a developmental licensed psychologist and quantitative methodologist whose research focuses on the use of large, and often combined, databases (i.e., big data) to address issues related to the cognitive, educational, and psychosocial outcomes of autistic individuals. Her recent work also focuses on gender differences among autistic individuals, particularly related to phenotype and wellbeing.

“Treating Externalizing Behavior Problems in Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Investigating a Novel Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Approach,”

-Research team: Dr. Patricia Renno (principal investigator) and Dr. Amanda Gulsrud (co-investigator) Given the high rates of externalizing behavior problems (e.g., aggression, oppositionality, hyperactivity) in youth with ASD, interventions that target externalizing behavior problems in young children with ASD may yield effective and long-lasting results and prevent symptoms from impairing the child’s self-concept, socialization, and learning. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approaches have been adapted and rigorously tested for emotional and behavioral problems in school-age children with ASD with positive findings. This pilot study will advance the field by testing a novel CBT approach designed for young, verbal, cognitively-able children with ASD with treatment resistant, externalizing behavior problems. Children and their families will be randomized to a CBT treatment condition or a Treatment-As-Usual (TAU) control condition. For the CBT condition, children and caregivers will attend twice-weekly group sessions for 12 weeks. The control families will receive the CBT treatment following their 16-week TAU condition. Findings from this pilot study will contribute to research aimed at identifying targeted, developmentally appropriate, effective treatments for externalizing problem behaviors in young children with ASD. Testing a manualized modified CBT approach is a preliminary step in this process and has the potential to reduce significant externalizing behavior and improve emotion regulation, compliance, and flexibility.

Dr. Patricia Renno is a Clinical Psychologist at the UCLA Child and and Adult Neurodevelopmental (CAN) Clinic and specializes in the assessment and treatment of ASD and related psychiatric conditions in children and adolescents. She is also the Associate Director of CAN REACH, a training program that offers ASD-related workshops, educational lectures, and resources to community providers and families. After completing her doctoral degree in Psychological Studies in Education at UCLA, she received postdoctoral training at UCLA’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment (CART). She acquired expertise in the use of modified cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and has worked on several clinical trials examining its efficacy to treat anxiety, emotion dysregulation and social difficulties in children and youth with ASD.

Dr. Amanda Gulsrud is HS Associate Professor in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in autism and the development of early interventions. She is the clinical director of the multidisciplinary UCLA Child and Adult Neurodevelopmental Clinic (CAN), which focuses on the evaluation and treatment of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) across the lifespan. Dr. Gulsrud’s primary research and clinical efforts focus on the early identification and treatment of infants and toddlers with ASD and related neurodevelopmental disorders utilizing the JASPER intervention, a naturalistic developmental behavioral approach developed at UCLA. She is also director of the CAN REACH Training Program and co-director of the the UCLA College to Career program.