New blueprint will guide autism research

The collaborative plan emphasizes searching for causes and helping families find resources.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted March 24, 2009

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The Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, an advisory panel of federal officials and public members, released a plan March 5 to guide research on possible causes of the developmental disorder. The research also is directed toward establishing services and supports for individuals with autism and for their families.

The IACC was established by the Combating Autism Act of 2006, which required the committee to develop and annually update a research plan. The disorder was recently in the news when a special vaccine court rejected the theory that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine combined with the preservative thimerosal triggered autism.

The disorder's causes remain unknown even as it becomes more common. Incidences of autism spectrum disorders have increased more than tenfold in two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whether this jump is due to better identification, a broader definition or more actual cases remains unclear.

"This plan will fill the gaps between what we know about autism and what we need to do to help affected families and communities," said Thomas Insel, MD, chair of the IACC and director of the National Institute of Mental Health. "This document marks a significant achievement in that it is the product of a truly collaborative effort."

The plan was welcomed by the Autism Society of America, an advocacy group based in Maryland. The society's president and CEO Lee Grossman serves on the IACC and aided in the document's development. In a statement, the group called the plan a "comprehensive strategy to look at all areas of research on autism."

The blueprint is organized around six research questions and goals. One goal is to identify, by age 2, children with or at risk for autism spectrum disorders and connect them with appropriate treatment.

Although a diagnosis can be reliably made by age 3, signs of abnormal development often are seen earlier. For children at high risk because of family history, many cases can be detected by 12 months, according to the document, and early intervention can have a critical influence on the course of the disorder.

In addition, the document poses questions about the possible biological basis of the disorder and the need to craft targeted and personalized interventions, while stressing the need to help families who must navigate complex service systems.

The American Medical Association has long-standing policy pledging to work to educate physicians in the identification of children with disorders such as autism and to help families obtain the appropriate early services.

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