As the national leader in diagnosed cases of autism – one in 45 children, according to the latest count – New Jersey has also become a national center for researching the condition.
While the state and federal government have long funded research into the science of autism, including trying to understand its root causes, in recent years New Jersey increasingly has emphasized linking research with treatments that can help children and families in the near term.
One fruit of this effort is the New Jersey Autism Center of Excellence Coordinating Center at Montclair State University, which works to ensure that individual researchers are aware of other developments in autism studies in the state.
The link between intensive scientific research and clinical research involving children at home and in school were apparent at a recent conference hosted by the center.
The gathering reflected a growing sense that progress is being made on multiple fronts. But it also demonstrated the range of challenges that remain in treating what is increasingly being seen a range of disorders with different causes and symptoms rather than a single “autism spectrum disorder.”
The conference brought together researchers from a wide variety of fields, as well as healthcare providers and families to discuss research projects that could lead to earlier diagnosis of autism – including among low income and minority children who have tended to be diagnosed later.
Others at the conference looked at new approaches to using videos to reach children with autism; compared the effectiveness of different approaches for treating autism early; examined the role that infections during pregnancy may play in autism; and assessed the needs and barriers to providing transportation to adults with autism.
Participants in the conference said progress is already being made.
State Acting Commissioner of Health Cathleen Bennett recalled a recent conversation with the mother of a child with autism. The same day that the mother learned of the child’s autism diagnosis, the child’s pediatrician reassured her that she would find an appropriate therapist, school, and support network.
“I don’t think 25 years ago, you would have heard somebody making those promises,” Bennett said, telling the researchers: “It’s because of the work that you do here that the pediatrician was able to make those commitments.”
Bennett has worked with the Governor’s Council for Medical Research and Treatment of Autism, which funded 16 ongoing or recently completed research projects. The state is providing $3.8 million for autism research this year.
One promising area of research is focused on finding ways to diagnose autism sooner. That includes work by Dr. Barbie Zimmerman-Bier of Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, who is looking at whether the condition can be linked to prenatal inflammation, as well as to whether a baby is poor at visual tracking or has unusual early motor behavior.
Dr. Yvette Janvier of Children’s Specialized Hospital is developing a new autism-screening tool for traditionally underserved children, including those from low-income, racial or ethnic minority backgrounds, or those with limited English proficiency.
“We knew that there were many families that we were not reaching,” she said, adding that the tool will screen 2,500 children as part of the state-funded research. “These children would not have been evaluated at all.”
[related]Psychologist Amy Learmonth of William Paterson University is researching whether children with autism can learn to imitate better by interacting with a video, since many of these children have difficulty with social interaction. She said the the research could contribute to a broader understanding of how babies learn to imitate, which is an important but poorly understood part of development.
Several projects aim to find genetic markers for autism, although signs that many different genes may play a role complicate this effort. In fact, Dr. Linda Brzustowicz said that people should refer to “autisms” rather than a single disorder, since similar behaviors appear to have different genetic causes.
One project at Rutgers’ Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine is using use stem cells from people with autism and other conditions to generate nerve cells. Then they watch to see how these cells develop over time, which may indicate how certain types of autism develops.
Dr. Mark Mintz is looking at whether there’s a link between specific genes and autism-related behaviors. If a genetic test to diagnose certain types of autism can be developed, it could both reduce the need for other diagnostic testing and provide a basis for new types of treatment, he said.
Rather than viewing autism as primarily a mental-health disorder, Mintz said, the research points to it being a biologically based neurological disorder.
Another project, based at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, is examining whether there’s a link between the ability of a child to process the common plastic-related substance Bisphenal A, or BPA. The early research indicates an association between the two, but researcher T. Peter Stein noted that it was only one study. However, he said he would personally support having pregnant women avoid BPA.
Children aren’t the only potential beneficiaries of state-funded research. Rutgers’ Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation has been exploring ways to improve transit options for adults with autism, including assessing whether these adults have the skills necessary to use different transportation options and ensuring that drivers understand their needs and behaviors.
“Adults on the spectrum have the same basic needs like we do,” said researcher Cecilia Feeley, noting the strain that driving adults with autism can have on family members.
Bennett also said state officials are also looking at ways to increase funding for programs for older children and young adults, who face a challenge when they lose the state and federal funding connected with their schooling.