Dr. Deb Karhson is a postdoc at Stanford University, where she researches biology-rooted therapeutic approaches to improving autistic quality of life. She is also the “baby sib” of an older autistic brother. We are looking forward to having Dr. Karhson as a featured researcher during this week’s #AutIMFAR chat at IMFAR, the International Meeting for Autism Research. Even better, we got to  interview her beforehand:

Dr. Deb Karhson

[image: Smiling Sri Lankan/Nigerian-American

woman with long curly black hair pushed to

one side, wearing glasses & hoop earrings.]

TPGA: Tell us about your research: What is your focus?

Dr. Deb Karhson: Broadly my current work is focused on biomarker discovery and drug development in for autism, which simply put means I’m looking for objective, testable, biological signatures of autism and whether candidate biomarkers can be leveraged for biotherapeutic development. And specifically, that means I’m interested in understanding the role of the endocannabinoid system in autism pathophysiology. The endocannabinoid system is the same system that mediates the effects of medical cannabis, so by understanding the role of this system in autism, we can also understand potential therapeutics that also act through/with the endocannabinoid system.

TPGA: What brought you into autism research?

Karhson: I am almost always preoccupied with what people are thinking and that is never truer than with my older brother (who is autistic). Growing up, I always felt like the literature never accurately answered the questions I was asking about autism or about concerned information processing. And then I realized that to study how people think meant understanding how brains worked which lead me to study Neuroscience. And now it’s my vehicle to asking as many questions as I please about autism.

TPGA: If you could be more than one person, what are some other areas of autism research you’d want to pursue, and why?

Karhson: I don’t know, off the top of my head I would split myself into at least three: one for studying language acquisition, which is probably influenced by my dissertation work in auditory attention and autism; one to study aging because there’s very little information on what “successful aging” looks like in autism and I have an older brother who is autistic; and one to study just girls with autism because I am a girl? And I think new research is coming out all the time about how different girls on the Spectrum are, which is both empowering as a woman and really interesting as a brain scientist.

TPGA: What are some changes you’d like to see, in terms of the general directions autism research tends to take?

Karhson: I wish there was greater emphasis placed on serving the current autistic population to improve quality of life. Similarly, if we keep repeating “one person on the spectrum is one person on the spectrum,” it would be nice to couch that in some hard data.

TPGA: Have you had any WTF experiences as a researcher on account of being either a woman, or a person of color—or both? If so, how did you push back?

Karhson: LOL, YES. Sometimes, it’s really subtle, like being told at national conferences that I speak English very well and am very articulate, which is super weird comment considering I’m a first-generation American and native English speaker.

Other times, it’s pretty overt like other students disparaging the need for diversity fellowship to me (i.e., calling me an affirmative action hire—which I would like to be clear, if I am, means I was put into the program to overcome the bias of an inherently prejudice or bigoted system that would otherwise exclude me because of my ethnicity and gender, not the other way around).

I also once attended a pretty elite autism workshop where I was the only under-represented ethnic minority and another participant very blatantly told me they were very surprised “to see someone like me” as a participant.

Push back for me is often time just about showing up, holding space, and speaking out. The higher up I go in academia, the more empowered I feel to really be visible and outspoken.

TPGA: As a sister to a high-support autistic adult, what are some autism myths you’d like to bust wide open?

Karhson: Can my answer be all of them? Vaccines, traumatic birth, or any other causation theorization. Should someone happen upon a data-driven answer to “what causes autism,” there will be no escaping the news of it. And the everyone has “special abilities.” If non-autistic people don’t have to come with a jewel in their belly or a Care Bear power, why are people with disabilities expected to? It is almost like a special ability is expected to justify the existence of people with disabilities.

TPGA: What are your thoughts on how society can better support and include autistic people like your brother?

Karhson: For one, stop messing with the fundamental rights of disabled people to access education, healthcare, and the ability to marry. It would be great to see larger swaths of non-disabled humans care about disability rights.

More urgently, I would really like better continuity between the end of formal state education and long-term post-education programs/systems, and more programs committed to providing meaningful jobs, community, and dignity and respect for adults like my brother.

TPGA: Do you have any advice for well-meaning young students interested in pursuing autism research?

Karhson: I would probably start by disabusing yourself of any savior complex you might have, then get involved in self-advocacy groups, and most importantly, if you don’t aren’t autistic—shut up and listen. Just like any other marginalized group of humans, autistic people are the best at identifying areas in need of increased support and, in my case, research. And because of the robust heterogeneity in autism there needs to be more humans listening for overlaps and areas of commonality to improve, as those are likely to be the areas where the greatest impact will be felt for the community.


More about Dr. Karhson:

I completed my undergraduate training at Drexel University in biomedical engineering with a concentration in tissue engineering and biomaterials. During undergrad, I had three co-ops (its like an  extended paid internship), two of which were in the Neuroscience department at Baylor College of Medicine. Through these co-ops, I realized that neuroscience was my entry point to acquiring all academic knowledge on autism spectrum disorder (ASD), something I had been interested in since young as a baby sibling of someone on the autism spectrum. So following my co-op experiences, I completed a PhD in Neuroscience at Tulane University as a Southern Regional Education Board Doctoral Scholar. I trained in cognitive neuroscience and electroencephalography (EEG) technique to study auditory attention in neurotypical and non-neurotypical populations. For my dissertation research, I used EEG to measure brain waves and examine the intersection of auditory attention and atypical sensory reactivity in adults with autism.

However, as a baby sib, I wanted to be able to leverage my skills to address a more immediate need like better therapeutics, particularly for things like self-injurous behaviors. So now, I’m extending my training with a postdoc at Stanford University in the Psychiatry and Behavioral Science Department through a NIH T32 postdoctoral fellowship from the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research. My postdoctoral research is focused on understanding the role of the endocannabinoid system in autism pathophysiology. This is the same system that mediates the effects of medical cannabis and my research is studying the body’s natural version of these molecules, called endocannabinoids, and their relationship to core clinical features of autism. It is my hope that my research findings will help identify novel biomarkers of autism, assist in the development of therapeutics that improve quality of life, and elucidates contributing neurocircuitry in autism pathophysiology.