NC Researchers Make Progress With Autism Spectrum Disorder

Brain Training

North Carolina is lucky to have several cutting edge research centers exploring the causes and treatments of autism spectrum disorder, including the TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication-related handicapped Children) program at the University of North Carolina, which specializes in community-based interventions; and the North Carolina Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Epidemiology, one of five national research centers funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The most recent addition is the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. The inter-disciplinary clinical and research facility is led by Geraldine Dawson, former Chief Science Officer for Autism Speaks, who developed and validated the Early Start Denver Model, the first comprehensive early intervention program for very young children with autism. She is also the author of several books on autism, including “An Early Start for Your Child with Autism.”

“We are still learning so much about autism, from early brain development to the other end of the continuum — adults with autism,” Dawson says, noting that several hot topics being researched include genetic causes, environmental causes, drug treatments and gender differences (ASD is five times more common in boys than in girls, and experts are studying whether this is because girls are underdiagnosed and/or whether there are neurological differences).

“There is hope that in the next few years, some of the clinical trials going on now will translate genetic findings into drug targets,” Dawson says.

A Duke study seeks to determine whether infusions of umbilical cord blood — either that of the children themselves, or someone else’s — can reduce core ASD symptoms. A second study is looking at the potential benefits of oxytocin, a hormone used anecdotally in smaller clinical trials. Dawson notes that the Duke Center would love to partner with families for their studies. They offer free diagnostic and clinical assessments for those interested in participating. (Register to participate in research studies at Duke University at

Dr. Kurt Klinepeter, M.D., chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, suggests that parents who suspect their child might have symptoms of ASD get connected to services as early as possible. “There’s a parallel system/universe for children with developmental issues,” he says. “Inform yourself as much as possible. Understand that it’s a condition that responds to treatment. Be steadfast and push for your child.”

Sassaman believes it’s worth the effort.

“We’re so lucky,” she says, referring to her son Oliver. “He’s an amazing kid. He’s got a great temperament. He works so hard. And he’s happy — he wakes up every day filled with joy.”


Caitlin Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Durham.

Categories: Exceptional Child, Special Needs