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UNC Researchers Making Strides in Interventions for Autism


Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are making progress in developing new techniques to detect and treat autism. “North Carolina has really been at the forefront in research and services that are being provided,” says professor of psychiatry Geraldine Dawson PhD.

The term autism refers to a group of developmental disorders that causes difficulties in social interaction. The condition is described as a spectrum, with symptoms ranging from mild to serious. About one in 110 American children have an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At UNC, the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities offers comprehensive services for children and adults with autism, including an assessment clinic for preschoolers, support for adolescents and adults, and a clinic for the treatment of the medical issues related to autism.

Early intervention is key, says Dr. Dawson, who is also the chief science officer for Autism Speaks, a research and advocacy organization.

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The TEACCH Autism Program (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication-related handicapped Children) is an evidenced-based service, training and research program that offers diagnostic evaluations, parent training and support groups, social play and recreation groups, individual counseling for higher-functioning clients, and supported employment. In addition TEACCH conducts training nationally and internationally and provides consultation for teachers, residential care providers, and other professionals.

TEACCH also brings together distinguished speakers and researchers each year for a conference on autism. This year’s conference, entitled “Looking Through the Looking Glass: Multiple Perspectives on Autism” will be held May 19 and 20 at the William and Ida Friday Continuing Education Center in Chapel Hill.

The CIDD also has a research team developing new techniques for diagnosing and treating autism. The Program in Early Autism Research, Leadership and Service (PEARLS) is led by Grace Baranek PhD, a professor and associate chair for research in the department of allied health sciences. Scientists have developed a questionnaire administered around the time of a child’s first birthday. Early 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.”

Scientists at UNC have also received grants for research, including Dr. Ben Philpot PhD who is conducting an ongoing investigation of Angelman syndrome, an ASD that may be caused by the disruption of a single gene. Research could lead to the development of autism therapies. In addition, Dr. Joseph Piven MD, with the Autism Research Program, is using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to conduct studies of brain development in infants at risk of autism. This study could help scientists better understand how brain changes might cause autism.

“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,” says Dr. Dawson.