As part of its commitment to establishing effective treatments for those affected by autism, Autism Speaks has announced more than $3.8 million in grant awards to investigate promising treatments over the next three years. Thirteen innovative grant proposals were selected, including six proposals from Autism Speaks' first review session devoted solely to studies of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) approaches. This research will help parents make informed choices for their family members at a time when treatment options for autism are far from standardized.
"We are excited to be funding several innovative and promising treatment studies, including studies of complementary and alternative medicine therapies. It is important that these approaches be rigorously tested so that parents can have confidence in their safety and effectiveness," said Geri Dawson, Chief Science Officer at Autism Speaks.
Research into vitamin B12 injections, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, oxidative stress markers, sensory-based interventions, and acupuncture will evaluate the benefits of these therapies using rigorous scientific trials. Another study will survey parental and clinician attitudes toward the gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet, in preparation for future studies of this commonly-tried dietary intervention. A key feature of many of these studies is to track multiple characteristics of participants in an attempt to find which individuals are most likely to benefit from a specific therapy, given the growing awareness of the need to "individualize" treatments for the diverse array of people with autism.
Another innovative project will explore a role for cholesterol in autism, given its involvement in brain development. Taking a cue from a rare cholesterol disorder in which affected individuals frequently have autistic traits, this research will determine whether levels of cholesterol are low in autism, and if simple dietary supplementation will improve behavior.
Several studies will address the efficacy of behavioral interventions. One project focuses on stereotypies, such as hand-flapping or body-rocking, that consume much of the time and attention of a person with autism, thus competing with their ability to learn. To find techniques that minimize the interference of these behaviors during learning, this study aims to recognize when motivation to engage in these behaviors is low during the day, and to see if such low-motivation periods can be encouraged through different methods.
Other projects will investigate the benefits of other special interventions that include both high- and low-tech innovations. Three projects will test computer-assisted programs designed to help teach social skills. One uses an interactive "drama book" in which the story depends on what and how something is said in order to teach the importance of speech prosody – the nuances of rhythm, loudness, and timing of speech that convey meaning, which is often hard to grasp for a person with autism.
Beyond computers, another project will evaluate the effectiveness of integrated play groups, which provide an opportunity for children with autism to interact with their typically-developing peers. Perhaps of equal importance, this study will also teach the typically-developing children about how best to interact with a person with autism, in an effort to promote his or her inclusion and social development.
Although research must also continue to drive us to an understanding of the biological causes of autism, there is still much to be done for the treatments available today. Autism Speaks is committed to funding treatment research that will lead to information that helps parents decide how to best spend their limited time and financial resources to support their children.