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Statement Regarding Recent Peer-reviewed Study Published in the Journal Autism Research

December 16, 2020

Recently, some on social media have expressed concern about the methods used in a peer-reviewed research study of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Descriptions of the study have been misinterpreted and we want to provide clarification.

The study was reviewed and approved by the Yale Institutional Review Board and was conducted in accordance with strict federal regulations regarding ethics in science and research. The study employed methods for eliciting responses that have been used in research in the U.S. and around the world for two decades. These methods are the result of countless stakeholders offering input into their standards of implementation and ethics.

The main goal of this study was to advance understanding of the development of emotional difficulties — such as anxiety and depression — in autism. These can have a marked impact on the quality of life in people with autism. In the general population, decades of research have shown that atypical emotional development in early childhood is predictive of later emotional distress. However, there is very little research examining the emotional development of young children with autism.

Our study focused on whether emotional reactivity to novel social and nonsocial stimuli was different between toddlers with and without autism. Our research found that toddlers with autism respond with slightly less distress to brief presentations of new objects like mechanical toys or Halloween masks compared to neurotypical peers. However, they were slightly more distressed than their peers when approached briefly by an unfamiliar person. These profiles of emotional reactivity may suggest risk for emotional difficulties later on. This discovery suggests that emotional vulnerabilities in ASD emerge early, which informs clinical care of these children.

The events used to elicit emotional responses were very brief, had low intensity, were interspersed with playtime, and mirrored what the children might encounter in the real world. For instance, a stranger approaching on a playground, a Halloween costume, or a new mechanical toy. The entire task reported in the paper lasted approximately two minutes with several additional minutes for breaks and transitions. Parents/caregivers who voluntarily enrolled their children in this study provided informed consent after being informed of all procedures. Each child’s caregiver was in close proximity during the entire session and could end the session at their discretion.

We monitored both behavioral and physiological responses and found that whenever the children experienced mild distress, it abated quickly. We implemented a strict protocol to ensure that children were not experiencing extreme negative emotions, and none did.

We have dedicated our research careers to the study of ASD and we care deeply about the well-being of children and adults who participate in our studies. Concerns about research are always taken seriously, and Yale School of Medicine takes great care to ensure that science is a collaborative process with families and within the local and global community of which we are all a part.

-Study Authors: Suzanne Macari, PhD; Angelina Vernetti, PhD; Katarzyna Chawarska, PhD

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Submitted by Robert Forman on December 16, 2020