To parents, learning that a child has been diagnosed with autism can be overwhelming. Children with the disorder can seem trapped in a world of their own without friends or even a conception of friendship. Many prefer to play alone. Some lose the ability to speak more than a few words. But researchers at UNC are making progress in developing new techniques to detect and treat the disorder, said Geraldine Dawson, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at UNC and chief science officer for Autism Speaks, a research and advocacy organization.
“North Carolina has really been at the forefront in research and services that are being provided,” Dawson said.
The term “autism” refers to a group of developmental disorders that cause a person to have difficulties in social interaction and communication. The disorders include Asperger’s syndrome, Rett syndrome, classic autism, and other syndromes, which can cause symptoms from mild to serious. Together, the syndromes are often referred to as “autism spectrum disorders.” About one in 110 American children have an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Early treatment can help children with autism spectrum disorders to earn social and communication skills, Dawson said. In one-on-one interventions, therapists teach children the skills that come naturally to others: smiling, making eye contact, playing, and using words.
“The good news is that many children respond very well to these interventions and are able to learn these skills,” Dawson said. “This offers really great hope for parents.”
At UNC, the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities offers a range of services for individuals with autism, including an autism assessment clinic for preschoolers, support for adolescents and adults, and a clinic for treatment of medical issues related to autism.
The TEACCH Autism Program at the UNC School of Medicine offers evaluations, parent training and support groups, and play and recreation groups to people with autism. TEACCH also brings together distinguished speakers and researchers each year for a conference on autism, said Lee Marcus, PhD, a consulting psychologist for the program. This year’s conference will be held May 19 and 20 at the William and Ida Friday Continuing Education Center in Chapel Hill.
Meanwhile, scientists at UNC’s Program in Early Autism Research, Leadership and Service (PEARLS), are developing new techniques for diagnosing and treating the disorder. A team of researchers led by Grace Baranek, PhD, professor and associate chair for research in the department of allied health sciences, developed a questionnaire administered around the time of a child’s first birthday. Preliminary results suggest that the questionnaire is effective in identifying infants at high risk of developing autism.
“It’s a real innovation because most children are not diagnosed until three years of age,” Baranek said. “If we can find a reliable tool that gives us clear indicators, we can identify the child sooner, support the family sooner, and start intervention sooner.”
The PEARLS team, Drs. Steve Reznick, Elizabeth Crais, Linda Watson, Lauren Brown and Grace Baranek, recently received a three-year grant from Autism Speaks to expand the assessment tool so that it can be used for infants between nine and 15 months of age.
Ben Philpot, PhD, an associate professor of cell and molecular physiology, is conducting an ongoing investigation of Angelman syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that may be caused by disruption of a single gene. In February, Philpot and Drs. Mark Zylka and Bryan Roth, also of UNC, received a $1,050,000 grant from the Simons Foundation to continue research on the gene, which could lead to the development of autism therapies. Meanwhile, the Autism Research Program at UNC, directed by Joseph Piven, MD, is using magnetic resonance imaging to conduct studies of brain development in infants at risk of autism. That research could help scientists better understand how changes in the brain might cause autism.
This ongoing research can provide reassurance to families of children with autism, Dawson said: “There’s always room for a lot of hope that not only can we help kids now who have autism, but in the future we’re going to do a better job.”
Signs Of Autism
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the following symptoms may indicate an autism spectrum disorder:
- Does not babble, point, or make meaningful gestures by one year of age
- Does not speak one word by 16 months
- Does not combine two words by two years
- Does not respond to name
- Loses language or social skills
- Poor eye contact
- Doesn’t seem to know how to play with toys
- Excessively lines up toys or other objects
- Is attached to one particular toy or object
- Doesn’t smile
- At times seems to be hearing impaired
Material adapted from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.