What are the causes of autism and what are the most effective treatments? These are two of the most pressing issues facing the autism community. Searching for the answers to these questions is what drives our work at the Center for Autism Research (CAR).
CAR's research is based on the belief that better treatments for the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) will follow from a better understanding of the causal mechanisms. There are probably dozens if not hundreds of causal influences, combining in various ways for each individual. We all recognize that autism is a spectrum, but we are just beginning to understand why and how children with ASDs differ from one another. These differences have important consequences in terms of treatment needs and developmental courses.
We've already made tremendous progress: Within the past year, researchers at CAR have identified the first gene (a "common genetic variant") putting one at risk for ASD. We've also identified a number of rare genetic mechanisms in related genes. Collectively, these are major breakthroughs, and they herald a day in the not too distant future where genetic and environmental risk factors can be identified for each child, with clear implications for next steps for intervention.
In addition to progress on genetics, we have also made good headway with our brain imaging studies. Using state-of-the-art technology, we've measured the timing of neuronal activity in the brain during simple sound processing and discovered that children with ASDs respond to individual sounds 1/50th of a second slower than their typically developing peers. Given that we speak at four syllables per second, when this delay is compounded, it might account for the difficulty children with ASD have in communicating. We have also shown that children with ASDs can improve their abilities to recognize faces with specially created therapeutic video games, and that specific brain areas underlie difficulties with social perception.
Through the world's largest randomized behavioral treatment study on autism, we are beginning to determine which treatments are most effective for which children (based, for example, on their genetic and behavioral profiles). And we're learning how to maximize the impact of classroom interventions by figuring out the training and support teachers need to carry them out successfully.
I invite you to explore our website and learn more about our work at CAR. Visit the profiles of our researchers to learn about their interests and projects, view the schedule for our Distinguished Lecture Series to find upcoming speakers on topics that may interest you, and learn how you can participate in our research and help us continue to make fundamental discoveries into the causes of autism.
We thank you for your interest, and we hope to become partners with you in our quest to help children and adults with ASD. On behalf of all of our faculty and staff, it is my pleasure to welcome you.
Bob Schultz, Ph.D., Director