UW Today

This is an archived article.

October 16, 2002

Families with two or more children with autism sought for $10.2 million study of genetic, neurobiological causes of autism

Researchers have launched a hunt in Washington and 15 other states for 250 families with two or more autistic children to participate in a $10.2 million University of Washington study to uncover the genetic and neurobiological causes of autism.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, one of the National Institutes of Health, is funding the study, which is also designed to develop intervention programs to assist children with the development disorder. Geraldine Dawson, director of the UW’s Autism Center and a psychology professor, heads the interdisciplinary team of researchers.

Dawson said children selected for the genetic study will receive free diagnostic evaluations, and their families’ travel and hotel expenses associated with the study also will be covered. The genetic testing and diagnostic evaluations will be conducted at cooperating universities and clinics in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas, as well as at the University of Washington.

Research by Dawson and others indicates that autism appears to be a spectrum of developmental disorders, rather than a single one. The condition interferes with a child’s ability to communicate or relate socially with other people. Those afflicted with autism have a restricted range of activities and interests, and about 75 percent of children with autism also have some form of mental retardation.

“We are interested in what accounts for the tremendous variability in people with autism,” said Dawson. “Some go on to the regular classroom in school while 25 percent never develop any kind of spoken language. There may well be many subtypes of autism, just as it appears there are different types of Alzheimer’s disease.

“In our genetics research we are trying to locate between five and 20 genes that are possibly related to autism. We are expanding our genetics studies because our earlier work indicates that traits of autism can be seen in family members related to children with autism. In some cases, these relatives may only exhibit one or two traits of autism.”

The neurobiological portion of the UW research study will include continuation of a long-term study of the brain and behavioral development involving 75 children with autism, 40 developmentally delayed children and 40 normally developing ones. This study, begun when the children were toddlers, has shown that 3-year-olds with autism have larger than normal brains and that these children also have difficulty recognizing and distinguishing emotions from facial expressions.

Among the goals of the UW Autism Center and this study are finding the genetic markers for autism and improving detection of the disorder during infancy so children and their families can be helped as soon as possible.

Parents who want more information about the study or want to enroll their families as participants may call (800) 994-9701.

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For more information, contact Dawson at (206) 543-1051 or dawson@u.washington.edu