New grant will fund child autism program

The Yale Child Study Center will receive millions of dollars in funding to expand its comprehensive research program on autism and child development disorders and hopefully increase services provided to autistic children in New Haven public schools.

Yale has been awarded $3.5 million from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, along with multiple other federal grants, for their three-tier research program on autism. Fred Volkmar, principal investigator for the program and a professor of child psychiatry, pediatrics and psychology at Yale, said the grant will help the Center continue to improve conditions for children with autism by increasing knowledge about condition and improving intervention services, especially in local schools.

The expansion of Yale’s autism program parallels the growing research being done in the field at large, Volkmar said. Increased research in the development of people with autism has led to significant improvements in the lifestyle of people living with this disorder, he said.

“There are more and more adults with autism able to be self-sufficient and live on their own,” Volkmar said. “As there’s been more research, people with autism will continue to do better.”

Although the Center has been studying autism since the 1950s, Volkmar said, the program has grown drastically over the last 25 years and he hopes it will continue to grow with this added funding. Yale’s autism program, which is comprised of three separate studies, focuses on children with autism, following their growth from infancy to adulthood. Researchers study the condition at different levels, ranging from the condition’s physiological effect on the brain and patient behavior to intervention strategies.

The first study follows siblings of autistic children from birth, which helps the scientists to identify the earliest possible red flags for autism. Since siblings of those with the condition are at a high risk of developing autism, this sector of the program is important in order to identify the disorder as early as possible, investigator and child psychology and psychiatry professor Ami Klin said.

“Since early identification is critical, this study will be the holy grail in identifying early signs of this condition,” he said.

The second part of the program focuses on the outcome of a large group of children at different age levels, following the same children from age 2 to age 8. Klin said this study can help them identify what kind of behaviors and factors predict the way a child will have developed by age 8.

The third and newest sector of the autism program involves higher-functioning individuals, or individuals without mental retardation, who will be studied focusing on their conversational deficits and the difficulties they have with their voice and speech.

Klin said the program will benefit both the families of the children studied and the community as a whole. The conjunction of these three different studies will have important results, improving early diagnosis and specific treatments for the worst aspects of autism.

“For the families, we provide our support and our understanding of their individual child,” Klin said. “Our hope is that we will be able to come up with specific treatments to address this debilitating condition, which will be a tremendous benefit to the community.”

Volkmar said the Child Study Center is currently working on autism awareness programs for schools, including several in New Haven.

“We’re trying to work out a series of relationships with school districts and school psychologists and nurses to become more knowledgeable about autism,” Volkmar said. “It’s something that I think the government has not done enough of, not just in New Haven but around the state.”

Yale students involved in the Public School Intern program through Dwight Hall said their experience in the program left them with varying opinions about the necessity of increased autism awareness at New Haven schools. Some students said the negligible number of autistic students in the schools in which they worked made increased intervention services seem unnecessary.

But other interns said the program was long overdue and well worth the time and money it will require. PSI co-ordinator Lisa Halbsgut ’07 said greater autism knowledge is necessary at many of the schools she had worked in.

“There’s definitely a need for it because there are a lot of special education students in the schools and it’s important to improve resources for them, especially for autistic children,” she said. “Intervention is where I think improvement is really needed, not just in New Haven but around the country.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 500,000 Americans under age 21 have some form of autism.

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