U-M center gets $7 million to study autism in infants

A $7-million grant from the National Institutes of Health will help researchers at the University of Michigan Autism and Communication Disorders Center focus more closely on early intervention for the youngest autistic children -- those up to about 18 months old.

Even as babies, most people search others' faces to help assess situations. An autistic child may not, said Catherine Lord, UMACC's director.

Lord said she believes infants can be encouraged to seek out such feedback, cementing a routine that could help as they learn to navigate the world.

"The idea is can you prevent some things from going awry if you catch them early enough?" Lord said.

It's the third such grant in recent months that will help U-M and Wayne State University study autism -- its origins, a possible treatment and the impact of early intervention.

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The grant adds to about $5 million of NIH funds recently awarded to the UMACC for similar early intervention, Lord said.

Those with autism have difficulty with social skills and communication and may have repetitive behaviors like hand-flapping. The most severe cases require lifelong support; other autistic people are high-functioning.

No one has pinpointed a cause or cure.

But the right intervention can lead to results, said Stephanie Harlan, director of the Autism Connections program at the Judson Center, a nonprofit, human service agency with several locations in southeastern Michigan. Her son was diagnosed with the disorder at 2 1/2 years old. He has been in occupational therapy and social skills therapy, takes medication and is on a special diet.

Now 9, he no longer meets the criteria for autism, Harlan said.

"Everyone has different theories of why it has worked for some kids and not for others," she said of intervention. "All I know is we got the right combination of treatments, and it has worked."

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At WSU, a nearly $5.8-million NIH grant will fund research toward a possible treatment.

Researcher Diane Chugani, a professor of pediatrics and radiology at the WSU School of Medicine, says autistic children may not produce enough serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps a young brain develop.

Chugani said autistic children were treated with a drug similar to serotonin in an earlier study she did, and many improved their social interactions and reduced repetitive motor actions.

Dr. Eileen Donovan, medical director at the Detroit Institute for Children, which serves disabled children, said the grants will greatly increase the odds of unraveling the mysteries about the disorder. "This is somewhat an uncharted area," she said.


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