UW News

June 6, 2000

UW Center on Human Development and Disability receives record donation to fund new Autism Center

The University of Washington’s Center on Human Development and Disability (CHDD) has received an unprecedented gift of $5 million to endow a new center for the treatment of autism, to encourage early intervention, and to expand training of professionals.

In what is believed to be the largest private gift ever made to the UW for a specific disorder, a personal donation of $5 million from Microsoft executive Richard W. Fade and his wife, Susan, is expected to be matched by a $5 million grant from an anonymous funding source, for a total of $10 million. Fade is Microsoft’s vice president of OEM Multinational Accounts. The Fades have a family member with autism.

The director of the new Autism Center is Dr. Geraldine Dawson, a UW professor of psychology and a nationally recognized expert in autism research and treatment. She directs a multidisciplinary research program, centered at the CHDD and funded by the National Institutes of Health, aimed at improving early detection and treatment of autism and understanding its cause.

“Autism is more common than childhood deafness or cancer and is growing,” said Richard Fade. “With this endowment we hope to create a center of excellence that will enable the Center on Human Development and Disability to increase its focus on delivering services to children with autism and their families, to provide increased opportunities for training of professionals, and to raise awareness of this disorder from various disciplines in the general community.”

“We need more research to understand the causes of autism. Until that time this center will help raise awareness and help children and families today.” said Susan Fade.

“These are extraordinary gifts for which we are very grateful,” said Dr. Michael J. Guralnick, director of the CHDD. “Communities around the country are wrestling with a dramatic increase in the incidence of autism and the need for highly intensive treatment. The CHDD already has strong programs in autism research and related areas. This endowment will enable us to greatly expand one of our missions: to provide comprehensive interventions for children with autism and related developmental disabilities.”

“We are so thankful for this generous endowment and are thrilled at the opportunities it provides,” said Dawson. “It will have a tremendous impact on the lives of many children with autism and their families. The response to early intervention can be dramatic, but children are often not diagnosed early enough and there are not enough services available.

“This endowment will allow us to expand our program of public information and outreach, so that health care providers locally and across the country can begin to identify children with autism at younger ages, when they can most benefit from treatment. Our goals are to provide intensive early intervention, and to build greater capacity for treatment, both at the center and in the community.”

Dawson points out that early treatment can result in a significant increase in IQ and improvement in daily functioning. “These results stand in stark contrast to the very poor outcomes of children who do not receive early intervention,” she said.

In accord with the endowment, the CHDD Autism Center’s mission is fivefold:
“1) to provide coordinated state-of-the-art services for individuals with autism spectrum disorders and related developmental disabilities and their families; 2) to provide professional training to increase the community’s capacity to provide such services; 3) to increase knowledge and awareness of such disorders in the professional community and the general public; 4) to serve as a model for delivering services in other communities across the nation; and 5) to collaborate with existing and future clinical and research programs relevant to autism and related disabilities at the UW Center on Human Development and Disability and in the broader community.”

Autism is characterized by impaired ability for social interaction, communication problems and a limited range of interests, resulting from brain abnormalities. It typically manifests itself during the first three years of life. Autism has been estimated to occur in as many as one in 500 individuals and is four times more prevalent in boys than in girls. Family income, lifestyle and educational levels do not affect its occurrence. More than half a million people in the U.S. have autism or a related disorder, making it one of the most common developmental disabilities.

For more information, see the CHDD’s web site at http://depts.washington.edu/chdd/ and the CHDD Autism Center web site at http://depts.washington.edu/uwautism/, or call the center at (206) 221-6806.

Geraldine Dawson is pioneer in early detection of autism, advocate of early intervention programs

Psychologist Geraldine Dawson, head of the University of Washington’s new Autism Center, is one of the leading researchers of the disorder and a pioneer in the early detection of autism.

Dawson is currently leading two major autism studies funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health.

One project is a $7.3 million interdisciplinary study of autism begun in 1997 to uncover the genetic and neurobiological causes of autism. The project also is developing intervention programs to assist children with the severe developmental disorder. Among the goals of this five-year study are finding the genetic marker or markers for autism and improving detection of the disorder during infancy so children and their families can be helped as soon as possible.

Dawson said the UW research team also hopes to identify behavioral and biological predictors of which children will respond to intervention programs. In addition, the UW researchers are trying to deepen understanding of the neurobiological basis of autism by studying how brain development in autistic children differs from that of normally developing children.

The other study involves scientific trials of the hormone Secretin as a possible treatment for autism. The hormone, which some parents of autistic children claim has almost magical properties, is being tested in concurrent trials at the UW and the University of Denver Health Sciences Center. The trials, which began in 1999, are being directed by Dawson and Dr. Alan Unis, a UW associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Dawson is perhaps best known for her work in the early detection of autism, which affects more than half a million Americans. In 1994, she reported it was possible to detect autism in 1-year-old infants, two to three years earlier than was previously possible. She accomplished this by studying the behaviors of autistic and normal children in home videos shot at their first birthday parties and was able to identify autistic children with 91 percent accuracy.

Dawson found four behaviors – eye contact, showing an object to another person, pointing to objects and responding to their name – to be predictive of autism.

“The most predictive behavior of autism is how little the children look at other people. Autistic children just don’t make eye contact with the same frequency as do normally developing children,” she said. “We also found that no autistic child in the study pointed to objects. Learning to point is very difficult for children with autism.”

Dawson is also a strong advocate of early and intensive treatment to help autistic children.

“We have to find and diagnose children with autism very early, while the brain is still plastic and amenable to treatment. In the last five to 10 year science has found that autism is treatable if children can be diagnosed early and given intensive behavioral interventions. A large number of children, but not all, respond dramatically to early treatment,” she said.


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