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Calls to Action

China Rises to Meet the Global Autism Challenge


Posted by Andy Shih, PhD, Autism Speaks senior vice president of scientific affairs

A few weeks ago, a journalist based in Beijing approached me for comment on Autism Speaks historic “10K Autism Genome Project” with BGI. Also known as the Beijing Genomics Institute, BGI is the world’s largest gene-sequencing company.

I was glad to talk about this project, which builds on Autism Speaks Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE) and embodies the goals of our Global Autism Public Health initiative (GAPH).

The project’s phase 1, now complete, involved the whole-genome sequencing of 200 anonymous individuals from AGRE and Chinese families affected by autism. Already, preliminary analysis is providing information with clear usefulness in the diagnosis and clinical care of autism. Phase 2 and 3 will complete this historic collaboration, bringing the total number of whole genomes sequenced to 10,000. (Learn more about autism genetics and genomics here.)

A prevalence study of unprecedented scale
In talking with this journalist, I suggested that he also investigate another historic autism endeavor now underway in China.

With Autism Speaks providing technical assistance, the Chinese ministry of health and Shanghai’s Fudan Children Hospital have embarked on a three-year, $6 million project to determine autism prevalence in their nation for the first time. Currently we’re assisting them in developing culturally sensitive methods for screening, diagnosing and treating autism in China.

This government-funded prevalence study will screen an unprecedented 200,000 children. In addition, the investigators will collect blood samples for genetic research. In doing so, they will contribute to the AGRE-China biorepository currently under development at Fudan. Moreover, they will do so on a scale that will help dramatically advance our understanding of autism.

Embodying our global goals
I am so gratified to see how these and related projects in China have come to exemplify our deepest goals for Autism Speaks GAPH program.

* First and foremost, our work in China is a response to the unmet needs of families. Our parents and other autism advocates in China are committed to making a real difference in their country. As our most valued advisors, they remain at the heart of all we do.

* Second, we are working with Chinese researchers highly motivated to use Autism Speaks support and resources to tackle unique opportunities. Their ambitious projects promise to advance understanding and treatment of autism worldwide – and in ways not readily possible in the United States.

* Third, we are engaged with government health officials committed to providing the resources needed to implement autism awareness and professional training programs. And we’re talking about a country that is home to nearly 20 percent of the world population!

Autism is a global challenge. Today China has become one of the best examples of what we can accomplish when families, professionals and government officials work together to advocate, support and accomplish this vital work.

The result is progress that benefits all stakeholders – including millions of families here in North America.

By the way, that journalist took my advice. On the occasion of World Autism Awareness Day, the South China Morning Post –Asia’s largest English-language newspapers – published his feature story “China Moves to Tackle Autism with First Study of Prevalence.” The next week, Nick published “Chinese Genome-Sequencer Leads World Autism Research” in The Economic Observer.

Editor’s note: To learn more about Autism Speaks GAPH initiative, click here. To explore GAPH-related research grants in North America and abroad, click here. This work has been made possible by the passion, generosity and hard work of Autism Speaks families and supporters.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.