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Community newsletter: COVID-19 anniversary, social responsibility of genetics research, autism research feedback

In this week’s community newsletter, we delve into the pandemic’s impact on academia, the social implications of genetics research and how to improve studies for autistic participants.

By Chelsey B. Coombs
14 March 2021 | 7 min read

Hello, and welcome to the community newsletter! I’m your host, Chelsey B. Coombs, Spectrum’s engagement editor.

As our readers no doubt know, this week marked the one-year anniversary of when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Many people have taken to Twitter to talk about what they were doing last March.

Clare Harrop, assistant professor of allied health sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reminisced about the annual meeting for the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR), which was scheduled to take place last May in Seattle, Washington.

In early March, however, the city was one of the first COVID-19 hotspots. Eventually, the conference moved online, and this year it will be fully virtual again.

Many academics had to shift gears from in-person research to remote data analysis and paper writing. Joshua Grubbs, assistant professor in clinical psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, tweeted about how that has affected publishing.

The inability to collect data this past year has had a major effect on early-career researchers, replied Lauren Weinstock, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Some institutions are taking that into consideration when looking at research output, though, noted Corey Peltier, assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Oklahoma.

Kristin Anders, assistant professor of human development and family science at Kansas State University, said her university is “actually accounting for that in our tenure packets.”

Next up, we’re highlighting a thread on a Nature Genetics World View piece called “Genes do not operate in a vacuum, and neither should our research,” by Daphne Martschenko, a research fellow at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics in California, and Markia Smith, a graduate research assistant at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Given the collective popular tendency to view genetics as separate from the environment, we as researchers in genetics and genomics need to address the social implications of our work as we conduct studies and communicate our findings,” the authors write.

Researchers across disciplines commented on Twitter, including autism researcher Jeff Craig, professor of epigenetics and cell biology at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia.

Petrea Cahir, a research coordinator at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia, wrote, “It is every researcher, institute & journal editor’s responsibility to conduct & promote socially responsible research.”

The paper is “a critical wake-up call,” tweeted Catherine Bliss, associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Our final Twitter thread this week comes from Emily Paige Ballou, co-editor of the book “Sincerely, Your Autistic Child” and an editor at the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network. Ballou offered some suggestions for autism researchers about the surveys they use in their studies.

Ballou commented on the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), a self-report measure of autism traits. “I am so tired of having to retake the AQ as the whole first part of your survey,” she wrote. “It’s sexist, it was designed to affirm outdated and sexist stereotypes, its assumptions about empathy have been countered by newer & better research, it’s long, and easy to game, and quite frankly, I’ve already been dx’d w/ autism. It feels like having that called into question again, and again, and again.”

Spectrum wrote about some of the drawbacks of self-report measures in a 2018 feature.

Sue Fletcher-Watson, professor of developmental psychology and director of the Salvesen Mindroom Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, replied with a suggestion to create an alternative to the AQ, developed by autistic people. Individual responses might be securely shared across research teams so that participants in multiple studies wouldn’t have to answer the same questions over and over.

Elizabeth Shephard, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, thanked Ballou for “pointing out the things that are not right in research in such a gentle and understandable way.”

Sarah O’Brien, research and policy officer at the U.K. autism research charity Autistica, said that Ballou’s suggestions could also be applied to disability studies more broadly.

That’s it for this week’s edition of Spectrum’s community newsletter. If you have any suggestions for interesting social posts you saw in the autism research sphere this week, feel free to send an email to me at [email protected]. See you next week!