New $2 million research initiative will study heart and brain health in people with autism

The American Heart Association and Autism Speaks are joining forces to fund pioneering research to learn more about how to enhance cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health in autistic people

April 30, 2024
American Heart Association Centennial logo
Autism Speaks puzzle piece

DALLAS — According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 36 children and 1 in 45 adults in the U.S. have autism, a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. To learn more about the unique cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health needs of people with autism, a new $2 million research initiative is being funded by the American Heart Association, celebrating 100 years of lifesaving service as the world’s leading nonprofit organization focused on heart and brain health for all, and Autism Speaks, founded in 2005 to create an inclusive world for all individuals with autism throughout their lifespan.

The pre- and post-doctoral fellowship awards will aim to empower and nurture the next generation of researchers and practitioners in the field of autism, with a focus on cardiovascular and brain health. There have been a number of recent studies identifying a connection between autism and heart disease:

  • Research in a review of studies published in 2023 in JAMA Pediatrics, found that people with autism have a higher risk of developing cardiometabolic diseases, including type 1 and type 2 diabetes (57% higher risk), as well as heart disease (46% higher risk), than people without autism. Children with autism were also at increased risk for high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
  • A large, case-control study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2020, reported that people born with congenital heart defects have about a 33% increased likelihood of receiving a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. 

“People living with autism already face many challenges in life and it’s critically important to recognize this potential for an increase in health factors that could put them at risk for cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. and the world,” said Joseph C. Wu, M.D., Ph.D., FAHA, current volunteer president of the American Heart Association, director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute and the Simon H. Stertzer Professor of Medicine and Radiology at Stanford School of Medicine. “This is an exciting new area of research for the American Heart Association, and we are pleased to join Autism Speaks in this endeavor that aligns well with our ongoing commitment for a world of longer, healthier lives for all.”

“At the end of the day, it is fundamentally a health equity issue,” agreed Andy Shih, Ph.D., Autism Speaks chief science officer. “Research suggests autistic people are more likely to have poor cardiovascular health compared to the general public. We need to know why and make sure people with autism have access to the same high-quality care as the rest of us.”

The program descriptions for pre- and postdoctoral fellowships are currently available, with deadlines of September 4 and September 5, respectively. Applications will be reviewed via peer review, including autistic adults and family members who will serve as community reviewers. Award recipients will be announced in early 2025.

To learn more, visit the American Heart Association’s Funding Opportunities.


About the American Heart Association

The American Heart Association is a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives. We are dedicated to ensuring equitable health in all communities. Through collaboration with numerous organizations, and powered by millions of volunteers, we fund innovative research, advocate for the public’s health and share lifesaving resources. The Dallas-based organization has been a leading source of health information for a century. During 2024 - our Centennial year - we celebrate our rich 100-year history and accomplishments. As we forge ahead into our second century of bold discovery and impact our vision is to advance health and hope for everyone, everywhere. Connect with us on, Facebook, X or by calling 1-800-AHA-USA1.

The American Heart Association has funded more than $5.7 billion in lifesaving cardiovascular research since 1949.

The Association receives funding primarily from individuals; foundations and corporations (including pharmaceutical, device manufacturers and other companies) also make donations and fund specific Association programs and events. The Association has strict policies to prevent these relationships from influencing the science content. Revenues from pharmaceutical and biotech companies, device manufacturers and health insurance providers and the Association’s overall financial information are available here.

About Autism Speaks

Autism Speaks is dedicated to creating an inclusive world for all individuals with autism throughout their lifespan. We do this through advocacy, services, supports, research and innovation, and advances in care for autistic individuals and their families. To find resources, join an event or make a donation, go to Learn more by following @AutismSpeaks on Facebook, X, Instagram, TikTok and LinkedIn.

For Media Inquiries:

American Heart Association: Cathy Lewis,

Autism Speaks: Lilia Carasciuc:

For Public Inquiries: 1-800-AHA-USA1 (242-8721) and