University makes autism research a priority

The University has launched an initiative across multiple departments to focus on autism research, GW faculty said during a panel discussion in the Marvin Center on Saturday.

Professors Laurie Alderman, Cathleen Burgess, and Valerie Hu shared their expertise in autism research, and discussed the more common misconceptions about the condition that affects one in every 100 individuals. Peg Barratt, dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, moderated the discussion.

Sharing the latest research concerning autism’s causes and treatment options, Hu said that medical professionals “knew so little about autism” until very recently.

Hu said that researchers are only beginning to understand that abnormal behaviors common in autistic children do not surface until children are at least three or four years old.

However, Hu said that GW researchers are hoping to find ways to detect the disorder earlier.

“The earlier the intervention, the better the outcome,” she said.

Citing the limited facts regarding the origins of this condition, Hu said autism is the consequence of an array of genetic and environmental factors, many of which remain unknown.

“About the genetic factors, little is known, and about the environmental factors, even less is known,” she said.

Burgess, who teaches in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science, said that the more common signs of atypical development in an individual lie in repetitive types of behaviors, language deficits and lack of social reciprocity.

“Recent research shows that the promptness of diagnoses has improved, diagnosing individuals as early on as 12 months of age,” she said.

Melvin Brok, who graduated with a masters from GW in 1984, said that he attended the discussion to hear about the latest findings pertaining to the condition from which his nephew suffers.

“We’ve dealt with it as a family for the last 20 years,” Brok said. “I like how this event puts into perspective how not only the boy or girl who is autistic is affected, but also those who surround and help him or her.”

Dean Barrat judged GW to “be moving towards an autism initiative,” this panel discussion being an example of how the GW community is coming together to discuss the facts and findings about a topic of which very little is known, she said.

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