We’re proud to support the next generation of autism researchers

Mental health is the top research priority for autistic people and their families who want better therapies and support for common and distressing problems like anxiety and depression.

Our PhD fellowship programme in mental health and autism was based at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King's College London.

The IoPPN has some of the world’s leading autism researchers and is one of the top two institutes in the world working on psychiatry and neuroscience.

PhD project: Why do autistic people respond differently to drug treatments for epilepsy, depression and anxiety?

Charlotte Pretzsch and Andreia C. Pereira used brain scanning techniques to understand how an imbalance in two brain chemicals, Glutamate and GABA, can cause mental health problems in autism.

Normal brain development and function rely on a balance between the chemical messengers, Glutamate and GABA. Recent studies have shown that this is abnormal in people with epilepsy, depression and anxiety. But standard treatments for these conditions often don’t work in autistic people, leading researchers to believe there might be a difference in the chemical signals in their brains.

This is the first time a research team looked at how these chemical messengers respond to different drugs in the brains of autistic people. They also looked at whether the levels of these brain chemicals are related to the severity of symptoms. Charlotte, Andreia and the team found that parts of the brain do react differently for autistic people as compared to non-autistic people. The results reinforce the fact that we cannot expect the actions of a drug tested in a non-autistic population to be replicated in autistic people.

PhD project: Why do children with autism behave differently?

Isabel Yorke followed a group of autistic children, diagnosed between 4 and 8 years old, who are now teenagers. By collecting new information from them and their families she hoped to understand a young autistic person’s risk of developing anxiety and how their anxiety changes over time.

Most autistic children had additional mental health problems that cause considerable distress to them and their families. Isabel looked at parenting and the home environment to identify risk factors for mental health problems in autistic children. These factors are well understood in people without autism but how they play a role in the mental health of autistic children is poorly understood.

The aim of the project was to identify those children at higher risk of developing problems early so that the right support and therapy can be offered. Overall, the findings suggest that although the links seen in existing research may be overestimated, certain links are still evident. However, these links seem to be related to very specific behaviour problems, parenting behaviour or psychological distress, and may not be found generally.

Isabel’s work will help other researchers focus their efforts on finding better therapies that are effective in reducing the symptoms of anxiety and other mental health problems in autistic children and teenagers.

PhD project: Autism and anxiety in social situations

Hannah Pickard wanted to improve the lives of autistic people and their families by better understanding the causes and triggers of social anxiety in autism.

Hannah looked at how mental processes cause and maintain anxiety in autistic people. The project aimed to identify the key mental processes for social anxiety in autism and find the best way of managing it.

Hannah found that social and communication difficulties early in life predicted a small but significant increase in later social anxiety symptoms. She also examined the types of things that cause social anxiety on a day-to-day basis.

These findings are an important step towards understanding what might cause autistic people to develop social anxiety.This knowledge can be used to develop more appropriate interventions. Her research will provide new knowledge to help those dealing with mental health issues on top of the behavioural difficulties already present in autism.