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State Awards Millions for Research into Diagnosing, Helping Kids with Autism

Grants will fund innovative clinical research, three hospital-based ‘medical home’ centers combining medical, behavioral healthcare

mary o'dowd
State Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd

Can tiny differences in how very young children move provide an early indication of whether they have autism? And how effective are different models for communicating with children with autism?

Those are among the questions that researchers in New Jersey will be exploring over the coming years, thanks to recently announced grant funding.

New Jersey has long been the national leader in diagnosing children with autism, with a focus on making sure autistic children get treatment based on the most up-to-date research.

The state has been emphasizing funding of research that can be translated into new treatments while also working toward developing a treatment model to ensure that autistic children’s behavioral and physical issues are treated holistically.

The latest step in this direction is $4.4 million in funding announced by Mary Pat Christie, wife of Gov. Chris Christie, and state Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd, including $3.2 million for eight research projects being conducted by Rutgers and Rowan universities and $1.2 million to develop three “autism medical homes,” which are hospital-based primary care practices that combine medical treatments with autism-focused services.

An estimated one in 45 children in New Jersey has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, with one diagnosis for every 27 boys and one diagnosis for every 133 girls.

While all of the causes for the disorder aren’t known, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says genetic and environmental factors probably contribute.

The eight grants, about $400,000 each, will fund research ranging from analyzing interventions in communication in preschool children with autism spectrum disorder to identifying early signs that a child has the disorder – which includes trying to detect “micro movements,” or tiny differences in how children move, to diagnose autism more quickly.

O’Dowd said the research will build on the Christie administration’s focus on broadening the range of autism-related research, as well as the launch of the Autism Center of Excellence at Montclair State University, along with efforts to “translate scientific knowledge into improved care and services for children with ASD and their families.”

Six of the research grants will go to Rutgers’ New Brunswick and Piscataway campuses, while two were awarded to Rowan’s Glassboro and Stratford locations.

In 2013, an earlier round of grants included $2.25 million to develop a screening tool for children from culturally diverse families.

Along with the research grants, the state named Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, Hackensack University Medical Center and Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune as the three autism medical homes.

Each will receive $200,000 annually for the next two years, with a chance to get three additional years of funding if they meet goals set by the state.

Each of the hospitals will be using the “autism medical home” funds for several purposes. Dr. Matthew B. McDonald, chief of special needs pediatrics at Children’s Specialized Hospital, cited examples of projects the grants will fund, including a mobile application to help parents and providers track a child’s activities, appointments and medications. The medical home at Children’s Specialized will serve 250 to 300 children, he said.

The funding will also allow the hospital to track whether each child in the program has been receiving the appropriate treatments for all of their physical and behavioral health needs.

Children’s Specialized Hospital will also host lectures featuring guest speakers on topics of specific concern to healthcare providers and family members, starting with experts in gastrointestinal health and common sleep problems.

The money will also pay for the hospital to determine which areas parents and staff members need to learn more about.

Finally, it will enable the hospital to work with the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) to extend care-coordination efforts outside of the hospital facilities and into local communities.

Medical homes, also known as patient-centered medical homes, are focused on creating a team of different providers who coordinate with each other to ensure that patients receive healthcare that is comprehensive and well-coordinated. Typically, the model relies on nurses who serve as care coordinators. While the model was developed in medical offices, it’s also being used in more specialized settings. In the new program, for example, it will be used in hospitals that provide both primary care and autism-related services to children.

McDonald said the autism medical home program extends New Jersey’s efforts to be a national leader in autism treatment within the fast-growing concept of care coordination.

“Hopefully in the end we’ll bring both those avenues together to improve the health of the kids with autism,” he said.

McDonald said hospitals like Children’s Specialized are well-suited to be autism medical homes, since the pediatrician offices are located next to the hospital’s autism services, along with experts in brain development and psychologists.

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