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GW Holds Autism & Neurodevelopment Disorders Initiative Day
The university kicked off its new initiative by addressing the Congressional Autism Caucus and hosting a research symposium.
September 21, 2012
The George Washington University launched its Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders (AND) Initiative Wednesday. The initiative will apply a multidisciplinary approach to conducting scientific research, improving treatment and fostering effective policy.
Nelson Carbonell, B.S. ’85, vice chairman of the GW Board of Trustees; Leo Chalupa, vice president for research; and five of the university’s autism and neurodevelopmental disorder experts began GW’s AND Initiative Day by addressing the Congressional Autism Caucus on Capitol Hill.
“I really believe this initiative will make a major impact in our region,” said Dr. Chalupa. “There’s nothing like this in the D.C. area, and we have a moral responsibility to do this for the children and adults that have been afflicted by this disorder.”
For Mr. Carbonell and his wife, Michele, the subject of autism is deeply personal.
Sixteen years ago, the Carbonells’ son, who was two at the time, stopped speaking and making eye contact. After a series of different diagnoses, the Carbonells were told that their son Dylan had autism.
“It’s been a long journey for us, but I think where we stand today is with an opportunity,” Mr. Carbonell told a packed room in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill. “GW has tremendous resources to influence governance and public policy. There are not many places where you can take the Metro over and sit in the halls of Congress where a lot of these decisions get made. If we are going to get a world in which people like my son Dylan cannot only survive but thrive and contribute to the world with their skills and their gifts then we’re going to have to have policies that support that.”
Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder typified by difficulties with communication skills, trouble with social interactions and obsessive interests or repetitive behaviors. The term “autism” is used broadly to refer to neurodevelopmental disorders that fall along the autism spectrum (Autism Spectrum Disorder, ASD) – a group of similar disorders with a broad range in severity and include the most severe classic autism, a milder form known as Asperger syndrome and PDD-NOS, or pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified. Individuals with autism may have other co-existing neurodevelopment disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and epilepsy. Neurodevelopmental disorders are manifested when the development of the brain and/or central nervous system is compromised and may affect an individual’s cognitive capabilities, physical abilities and social interactions.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of autistic children in the U.S. has soared by 78 percent since 2002. An estimated one in 88 American children has an autism spectrum disorder. For boys, it’s one in 54. As of today, there is no known cause, preventative measures, medical detection or cure for autism.
Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., who is a member of the Congressional Autism Caucus called autism one of the most important health and education issues facing the U.S. today during his remarks Wednesday for GW’s AND Initiative Day. Rep. Moran said he’s particularly concerned about the country’s lack of preparation for the rising number of children nearing adulthood and the social services needed to support them.
“This is a very important day and initiative that you’re taking. I appreciate your advocacy,” said Rep. Moran. “We need you to stay engaged and pressure the Congress to do far more than it is doing and make the country more fully aware of what we’re dealing with.”
GW’s AND Initiative will focus on three main areas related to autism and neurodevelopmental disorders: research, treatment and policy. In collaboration with the Medical Faculty Associates, the George Washington University Hospital and Children’s National Medical Center, the university plans to establish an interdisciplinary institute to address autism. Individuals with autism and neurodevelopmental disorders will have access to assessments, interventions, medical treatments, support services and clinical trials. While faculty conduct biomedical and cognitive neuroscience research, GW will provide policymakers, public health officials and health care administrators with the information they need to improve access to quality and affordable care.
“There’s no question in my mind that we will be the premier place not just in Washington but in the nation and in the world,” said Dr. Chalupa during a research symposium on Wednesday afternoon in the Jack Morton Auditorium.
A diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder is currently determined by a group of observational and performance tests, but GW researchers like Valerie Hu, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, hope to find a biological marker that can be used in screening DNA for autism.
Dr. Hu was inspired to study the biology of autism after her now 25-year-old son Matthew was diagnosed at age two with autism.
“It was really bewildering, and we were left floundering about what we do next,” said Dr. Hu. “And to a large extent parents that receive a diagnosis for their child today are kind of in the same boat because in this D.C. metropolitan area, there really isn’t a single place where parents can get comprehensive and integrated services and advice for what are the best options for their child with respect to treatment, therapies, education and related services.”
That’s why Dr. Hu envisions GW becoming a place for parents to turn.
GW already has more than 30 faculty members across the university who are working on autism and/or neurodevelopmental disorder research, treatment and policy. Anthony LaMantia, director of GW’s Institute of Neuroscience and a professor of pharmacology and physiology in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, is using mice to better understand how the brain is made and model genetic disruptions that cause disease in human patients. Donna Betts, an assistant professor in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, is studying how individuals with an autism spectrum disorder can benefit from art therapy. The Graduate School of Education and Human Development is preparing its students to teach children with an autism spectrum disorder, while the School of Public Health and Health Services’ Department of Health Policy is working to create better systems of care for those affected by autism.
“The complexity of autism can only be addressed by research that cuts across traditional boundaries,” said George Washington President Steven Knapp during his closing remarks at the AND Initiative Day’s research symposium.