UNC Receives $8 Million to Advance Autism Research

Two new multimillion-dollar grants promise to solidify UNC’s standing as one of the nation’s leaders in autism research and treatment.

In early June, the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute was awarded $5 million to create a national autism professional development center to work with 12 states to promote early diagnosis of children with autism and to increase the number of professionals prepared to teach children with autism. The institute was founded at UNC in 1966.

The institute also received a $3 million grant to compare the efficacy of two commonly used, but previously unevaluated, classroom approaches to teaching children with autism. Both grants were made by the U.S. Department of Education.

Autism is characterized by impairment in communication skills, social interactions and repetitive patterns of behavior. UNC has been a pioneer in autism research since 1966, when child psychologist Eric Schopler developed the TEACCH – Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped Children – program at the University. It was the first state-supported, university-based program serving individuals with autism and their families.

In 2002, UNC was one of the first universities in the country to receive money for a federal autism research center. UNC researchers examine the genetic and neurological basis of autism, using techniques such as brain imaging studies and DNA studies. In the past two decades, it is estimated that there has been a 20-fold increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism. Meanwhile, observers say, awareness of the ways to deal with autism has not kept pace with that rate.

That is what Samuel Odom, the institute’s director and a leading autism researcher, and Deborah Hatton ’95, a senior scientist, aim to address.

“The numbers continue to rise sharply, but many teachers and other professionals still lack the knowledge on specific techniques to help autistic children,” Hatton told The News & Observer. “There’s a shortage of special educators in general.”

Hatton also told The N&O that a major part of the center’s work will be promoting evidence-based practices for treatment and early diagnosis of autism through training sessions and Web-based resources.

Early intervention is crucial because evidence shows that the sooner a child with autism is diagnosed, the more effective treatment can be. Hatton said the earliest a child can now be reliably diagnosed with autism is at age 2, but many parents and others don’t know what signs to look for.

“Research shows that if we intervene early, we can greatly enhance the lives of children with autism. This new work will help ensure not only that children are diagnosed as early as possible, but that when they are diagnosed they receive the most effective treatment by professionals who are prepared and knowledgeable,” Odom said.

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