Autism Research

A child shows his drawing to an adult.
Credit: OHSU News

We are basic scientists studying synapses, neuronal circuits, and genetics. We are researchers trying to understand language processing, cognitive functioning and the neuropathology of sleep. We are implementation and services researchers trying to advance equity and improve quality.  We are clinicians spending hours with families, diagnosing and navigating the journey of autism.

In 2022, we received more than $20 million in grants related to autism and neurodevelopment disorders from the National Institute of Mental Health, Autism Speaks, Simons Foundation, International Society for Autism Research, and others. Our notable research breakthroughs include the discovery of two specific genes associated with autism and the role of glia in inducing neuronal dysfunction in Rett syndrome, one of the most severe causes of developmental disability in young girls. We have worked with policy experts statewide and nationally to develop and improve care standards for children and adults on the autism spectrum. 

Collaborating on autism research breakthroughs

Though most people with autism lack a known genetic cause, commonalities among the genetics of autism will advance knowledge to help with understanding all autism. At OHSU, several rare genetic forms of autism are under investigation, including TBR1-related autism, BPAN, and Rett syndrome. Our faculty are leaders in dissecting biology with a focus on gaining enough basic understanding to translate into new therapies. Common outcomes of autism spectrum disorders arising from differences in any one of the autism genes means that work on a specific gene-based autism spectrum disorder will serve the whole community.

OHSU autism investigators come from a diverse range of disciplines and collaborate freely across units at the University. A basic scientist in the Vollum Institute might find that they can move their studies in a translational direction by collaborating with a behavioral expert in the Institute on Development and Disability, and OHSU makes it easy to build such teams by promoting interdisciplinary meetings and labs. This means that clinician-scientists are part of the team and can lead a research program from basic discoveries, to clinical trials, to implementation studies in community settings, to analyses of the effects of state and federal policies that affect autistic people.

Researcher spotlight

Dr. Brian O'Roak sits in his lab.
Credit: OHSU News

Brian O’Roak is easy to spot. The "sideburn-sporting scientist" is one of several leading researchers at OHSU navigating the questions of how genes are related to autism spectrum disorder. In 2016, Dr. O’Roak’s lab, along with 20 other sites across the U.S., launched SPARK, the largest genetic study of autism ever.

Six years later, in September 2022, that project came to fruition in a paper published in Nature Genetics. The research team analyzed 19,843 participants with autism, along with one or both of their biological parents. They identified a first set of candidate risk genes, or genes that indicate an increased likelihood — but not guarantee — of developing autism. O’Roak’s team then tested these candidate genes in another 22,764 individuals with autism and 236,000 people without autism from other studies. By analyzing and combining results from these studies, they identified 60 highly significant genes associated with autism, five of which are newly associated with autism.

Basic researchers

Stephen Back, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pediatrics

  • The Back Lab is focused on understanding autism from the context of two hit models where fetal or neonatal exposure to hypoxia can modify the maturational trajectory of neurons in vulnerable populations that contribute to autism.

Skylar Jackman, Ph.D., assistant scientist, Vollum Institute

  • Revealing how genetic mutations affect synaptic transmission and cognitive processing

Brian O'Roak, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular and medical genetics

  • Molecular basis of neurodevelopmental disorders

Arpiar Saunders, Ph.D., assistant scientist, Vollum Institute

  • The Saunders labs develops viral genomic technology to study how autism-associated gene mutations change the molecular, cellular and synaptic properties of neural circuits.

Kevin Wright, Ph.D., scientist, Vollum Institute

  • Somatosensory and retinal circuits in neurodevelopmental disorders

Clinical researchers

Meysam Asgari, Ph.D., associate professor, computer science and electrical engineering

  • Speech and language processing, speech recognition

Steven Bedrick, Ph.D., associate professor of medical informatics and clinical epidemiology

  • Natural language processing techniques applied to biomedical problems

Melanie Fried-Oken, Ph.D., professor of neurology, pediatrics and biomedical engineering, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Dr. Fried-Oken leads the REKNEW lab at OHSU which is dedicated to developing and evaluating assistive technologies for the complex communication needs of children and adults with developmental, acquired and/or neurodegenerative disabilities. Our research is based on the principles of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and participatory action research, with a focus on including people with lived experience of complex communication needs and their families.

Susan Hayflick, M.D., Ph.D., professor of molecular and medical genetics, pediatrics and neurology

  • Clinical, biochemical and molecular geneticist

Willi Horner-Johnson, Ph.D., professor of public health, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Health-related quality of life among people with disabilities

Miranda Lim, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of neurology

  • Understanding the function of sleep early in life in shaping brain development and social behavior

Christina Nicolaidis, M.D., M.P.H., adjunct professor of medicine

  • Co-founder and co-director of the Academic Autism Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education (AASPIRE)

Emily Quinn, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, assistant professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Dr. Quinn conducts research on caregiver-implemented language interventions for children with autism with a focus on augmentative and alternative communication approaches for children with emerging communication skills.

Benjamin Sanders, M.D., M.S.P.H., M.S., assistant professor of pediatrics

  • Researcherer in Zuckerman lab with a focus on autism and developmental screening in primary care, subsequent referral of children to developmental services, and information systems that support participants in this process.
  • Primary care including children with complex care needs

Katharine Zuckerman, M.D., M.P.H., professor of pediatrics

  • The Zuckerman lab studies access, quality, and disparities in care for children with autism and other communication conditions in early childhood

Clinicians

Kristi Atkins, Ed.D., CCC-SLP, associate professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Speech language pathologist specializing in autism from birth to age 5

Katherine Breithaupt, O.T.D., OTR/L, assistant professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Dr. Breithaupt provides Autism Clinic evaluations and treatment for children with autism, and their families. She is also involved in the Autism ECHO ACCESS program to collaborate community based providers who diagnose, treat, and support children with autism and their families.

Jill Dolata, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, associate professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Dr. Dolata is a member of the autism diagnostic team within the Institute on Development and Disability. She has an interest in early communication, neurodiversity, and autistic language characteristics. She conducts collaborative research on equity in autism screening and language patterns within autistic individuals.  

Susanne Duvall, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Specialist in neuropsychological assessment

Kurt Freeman, Ph.D., ABPP, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, director, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Specialist in behavioral health care of kids with and without special health care needs

Kushma Govindappa, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Developmental pediatrician specializing in diagnosing and treating children with ASD

Cynthia Green, M.S., CCC-SLP, associate professor of pediatrics

  • Speech language pathologist specializing in autism diagnostics

Rachel Greene, Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Dr. Greene is a pediatric neuropsychologist with research and clinical expertise in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Currently she investigates complex clinical differentials and the impact of demographic and contextual factors in ASD assessment (e.g., gender, co-occurring psychiatric conditions, and trauma, among other factors). 

Kory Keller, M.S., C.G.C., associate professor of molecular and medical genetics

  • Kory Keller has provided genetic counseling to hundreds of families who have children with autism spectrum disorder over the last 25 years. Kory helps families better understand genetic testing and decide if they are interested. If so, Kory facilitates genetic testing for the child and potentially other family members as well as helping the family understand test results and the implications of those results.

Matthew Kivel, Psy.D., assistant professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Assessments for autism or other neurodevelopmental differences

Dawn Macready-Santos, LCSW, LICSW, social worker, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Clinical social worker specialized in mental health treatment and assessment of children with neurodevelopmental disabilities, autism and complex medical needs.

Cat McGovern-Zlotek, M.S., OTR, occupational therapist, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Specialist in diagnosing older adolescents with possible autism; created a Behavior Pyramid tool to assess behaviors that look like autism but is due to other issues

Kylee Miller, Ph.D., NSCP, assistant professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Specialist in neurodevelopmental disabilities, including autism, and comorbid psychiatric conditions; forensic work with determination of intellectual disability in capital cases

Robert Nickel, M.D., professor of pediatrics, Institute on Deveopment and Disability

  • Dr. Nickel's clinical and research focus is on identification of young children with ASD.  Dr. Nickel is a certified trainer in the Screening Tool for Autism in Toddler and Young Children (STAT)

Emily Olsen, Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Specialist in neuropsychological assessment and researchers in neurodevelopmental disorders

Rita Panoscha, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Special focus on neurodevelopmental disabilities and preschool speech and language disorders

Kersti Pettit-Kekel, OTR/L, assistant professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Occupational therapist specializing in autism from birth to age 18

Randall Phelps, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Provides diagnostic assessments and ongoing care to children and youth with autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities; program director of the Fellowship in Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

Hannah Sanford Keller, M.S., CCC-SLP, associate professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Speech language pathologist specializing in autism from birth to age five

Kevin Senn, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Evaluation and treatment of children with neurodevelopmental disorders

Mandie Wiebers Jensen, M.D., OT, assistant professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Evaluation and treatment of children with neurodevelopmental disorders

Margaret Wolf, ORT/L, assistant professor of pediatrics, Institute on Development and Disability

  • Occupational therapist working with the multidisciplinary Autism Clinic evaluation team, with a focus on children under three years old; provides treatment and parent coaching for families with a recent diagnosis

Paria Zarrinnegar, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry

  • Dr. Zarringer is the medical director of the Child & Adolescent Psychiatry outpatient clinic. She specializes in cultural psychiatry and biopsychosocial assessment.

40 under 40: Marissa Co, Ph.D., is named one of the 40 rising young star researchers working on autism-related science
Spectrum, December 22, 2022

OHSU leads research on health disparities in autism care, other early childhood communication disorders
OHSU News, December 15, 2022

Discovery gives insight into brain function, breakdowns
OSHU News, October 19, 2022

OHSU experts tapped for national Artificial Intelligence initiative
OHSU News, September 13, 2022

OHSU supports research collaboration identifying genes linked to autism
OHSU News, September 1, 2022

Something to hold onto: Rare Champion of Hope recognizes molecular geneticist Susan Hayflick, M.D.
OHSU News, December 1, 2021

Eric Fombonne: Crossing continents to expand autism science
Spectrum News, September 7, 2021

How to prevent tragic encounters between autistic youth and law enforcement
AAP Voice Blog, Sept. 16, 2020

OHSU discovers cell in zebrafish critical to brain assembly, function
OHSU News, September 8, 2020

Primate center research videos: Study shows diet during pregnancy affects brain development, behavior
OHSU News, July 6, 2020

Historical Autism study enters fourth year, giving families answers, hope
KATU-TV, February 18, 2019

Taking action to understand the genetic causes of autism
OHSU News, April 25, 2019

Genetic testing for autism matters
OHSU News, April 25, 2019

Giving patients a voice
OHSU News, May 14, 2019

OHSU physician-scientist focuses on a good night’s sleep
OHSU News, May 13, 2019

Rising Star: Damien Fair, never at rest
Spectrum News, January 9, 2019

OHSU doctors partner with hundreds of families for in-depth autism study
KATU TV, May 17, 2018

Brain scans may uncover signs of autism and developmental delays
Around the O, April 25, 2018

Attention deficit disorder, autism share cognitive problems
Spectrum, March 22, 2018

Notable papers in autism research in 2017
Spectrum, December 22, 2017

Autism in Adulthood, a new peer-reviewed journal launching in 2019
EurekaAlert!, December 15, 2017

Inherited brain activity may guide treatment for autism, ADHD
UPI, November 2, 2017

Sizable fraction of autism risk traced to 'mosaic' mutations
Spectrum, September 14, 2017

Clinical care

A referral is required to be considered for a consultation or assessement. Call the Adult, Child & Adolescent Clinic at 503-494-6176 for more information.

If you are seeking an evaluation to determine if your child may have autism or a related condition, or if your child has autism and are seeking therapy services, please call the Child Development and Rehabilitation Center intake line at 503-346-0640.

Learn more about Doernbecher Children's Hospital Pediatric Autism clinic.

Contact us

For general questions about our research, contact orbrains@ohsu.edu