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Tackling Autism’s Toughest Questions

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Dr. Bryan King and colleagues' autism research investigates fundamental questions about a disorder whose prevalence has skyrocketed from one in 1,000 children 30 years ago to about one in 110 today.

“We don’t know what causes autism and we don’t have good tools for diagnosing it,” King says, “and we need to do something about it.”

Helping Doctors Diagnose Autism

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King, an investigator in the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, is part of a select group actively writing criteria that doctors everywhere will use to diagnose the disorder. This is important because autism’s symptoms vary widely and, if doctors can do a better job identifying and diagnosing them, it can help match children with the treatments most likely to improve their condition. 

King and colleagues are leaders in investigating how genes may make children more susceptible to autism, and in examining whether exposure to specific environmental factors might explain autism’s surge. 

“We’ve learned that autism’s footprints are laid down very early in development, long before you see its symptoms, and we’re trying to piece together all the different factors that contribute to that,” King says. 

Using Clinical Trials to Test Autism Treatments

Seattle Children’s Autism Center, which King directs, accelerates this process while helping his group with another key goal: developing and testing potential treatments.

Founded in 2009, the center brings the services children with autism need – ranging from psychological, psychiatric and neurological evaluation to speech therapy and family supports – under one roof. This improves care and also gives families access to research opportunities. 

For example, patients have access to one of the nation’s best clinical trials networks, letting them enroll in trials of everything from new hyperactivity drugs to interventions for disruptive behavior.

“The center is a clinical juggernaut where the top priority is delivering great clinical service to patients and families,” King says, “and these patients are seeing increasing opportunities to participate in research that might help us make an even bigger difference in their lives.” 

While King is careful not to create false hope, he thinks that this infrastructure, coupled with the increasing attention and funding directed toward autism, provides a foundation for rapid progress.

"If you look at where certain cancers were 20 years ago, the word 'cure' was a dream that is now a reality," he says. "I am convinced we can make similar strides."

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