Autism institute director marks first year with plans for more research, clinical projects

About a year after naming a leader, the autism institute plans to grow its research and clinical projects.

Kevin Pelphrey, the director of the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute, presented updates about the institute since it launched in April at the Board of Trustees meeting Friday. Researchers in the institute say they are studying topics within the field that are often ignored.

Pelphrey said institute researchers have submitted 14 grant proposals totaling $46 million, accepted 16 peer reviewed papers and worked on 24 collaborations across seven GW schools and with the Children’s National Medical Center.

“We’ve made really great connections,” Pelphrey said. “We want an institute that uses all the schools on campus and other universities to build.”

He said the institute is the lead site for a project on autism in girls that is collaborating with Yale and Harvard universities and the universities of Washington, Southern California and California at Los Angeles and San Francisco.

By getting together and really presenting a unified mission, we are not competing against each other and stepping on each others toes.

“By getting together and really presenting a unified mission, we are not competing against each other and stepping on each others toes,” he said. “We’re taking advantage of what each place does best and presenting that to federal funders.”

But Pelphrey said he doesn’t plan to only have partnerships in research. He also wants to help employ young adults with autism, who are often skills-focused and detail-oriented, at places like cybersecurity companies.

He said he is also working with the Virginia government to utilize the research scientists are doing to bring them more clinical care.

Leaders in communities like Ashburn, Va. and at Howard Hughes Medical Institute are interested in collaborating and building a comprehensive training program for individuals with autism, he said.

“There will be something that a lot of centers aren’t doing, which is both helping families figure out what’s going on with their child or adolescent or adult but also offering evidence-based treatment and using that as an opportunity to inform our research and our understanding fundamentally of autism,” Pelphrey said. “That, we are hoping, will give us the material to affect policy and communication.”

The Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute was first conceived in 2010 and is housed on the Virginia Science and Technology Campus and in Monroe Hall on the Foggy Bottom Campus. The research institute was in the works for nearly six years before it officially opened last April.

Officials announced Pelphrey as the autism institute’s inaugural director last year, along with a plan to focus on autism research in adults and women – an area faculty said is often left out of research.

Pelphrey said he has hired three researchers and a program manager for the institute so far, and that he plans to hire at least one more faculty member – either a clinical director or clinical expert – by the start of next academic year.

Researchers across campus have expressed concerns about the uncertainty of federal funding under the new presidential administration. Pelphrey, who has submitted 14 grant proposals for his institute but hasn’t heard back about any of them, said he is concerned that a federal freeze on the Environmental Protection Agency could affect the researchers’ ability to study environmental factors in autism.

Allison Jack, an assistant research professor of pharmacology and physiology and a researcher in the institute, said she came with Pelphrey from Yale and is currently working on an NIH-funded project on autism in girls.

She said she is focused on completing grant proposals and is doing most of her research on the Virginia campus. Jack said she was raised in Virginia and saw a need for more autism services in the area.

“Kevin presented me the opportunity to come back down to my home state and participate in being one of the people that would be getting this center off the ground,” she said. “I just jumped at the chance because this is my home and I want to bring these services back to the community where I grew up.”

Autism is a common and impairing disorder and our work is dedicated to finding effective treatments for the core social deficits and associated emotional problems.

Denis Sukhodolsky, an associate professor in the child study center at Yale University, said he is working with Pelphrey and the institute on clinical trials of cognitive-behavior therapy for irritability and anxiety in children with autism.

“Autism is a common and impairing disorder and our work is dedicated to finding effective treatments for the core social deficits and associated emotional problems,” Sukhodolsky said.

Leo Chalupa, the vice president for research, said in an interview earlier this month that it is easier to maintain the momentum that researchers have now than it was before. He said that over the last six years, the school has hired young faculty members and established a faculty corps to lead research, like Pelphrey.

Chalupa said hiring Pelphrey to lead the institute has brought in more talented researchers.

“Success attracts success,” Chalupa said. “You want to go with enterprises that are really good. It is going to make the value of your degree higher. That is our reputation.”

Nelson Carbonell, chairman of the Board of Trustees who has a 23-year-old son with autism and helped fund the institute, said Pelphrey has worked well with connecting faculty members in different disciplines – from engineering to public policy – to collaboratively study autism.

“He is really creative and really energetic. He has transformed things,” Carbonell said. “It’s always fun to see your gift turn into something real.”

Cort Carlson and Jacqueline Thomsen contributed reporting.

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