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Vital Signs

Spring 2007

Knowledge About Autism Expanding

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More than 60 years after it was first described, autism remains one of the most puzzling childhood disorders. But in that time, much of what was believed about autism has changed dramatically, and the long-term outlook for children with autism is in many ways more hopeful than ever. While no two cases of autism are alike, studies show that many children improve with treatment.

At UCLA, and elsewhere around the country, research is ongoing to better understand the behavioral, biological, genetic and neurological basis of autism, as well as to develop appropriate treatments. “This is a really exciting time,” says clinical psychologist Pegeen Cronin, Ph.D., director of the UCLA Autism Evaluation Clinic. “We have learned more about autism in the past 10 years than we knew in the previous 50.”

The evaluation clinic Dr. Cronin heads is part of the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment—one of eight National Institutes of Health Centers of Excellence in autism research. Early intervention and therapy is key to maximizing the potential of a child with autism. “The sooner parents get a child into intervention—the moment they get that diagnosis—the better,” says clinical psychologist Tanya Paparella, Ph.D., who, with Stephanny Freeman, Ph.D., is co-director of UCLA’s Early Childhood Partial Hospitalization Program, a day-treatment program that treats young children with autism-spectrum disorders. Studies at UCLA have, for example, demonstrated that with early, intense therapy, children with autism can learn important foundational skills like pretend play and sharing attention with others—skills that often elude those with autism.

Although symptoms sometimes can be seen in early infancy, autism may appear after months of normal development. The hallmarks of the syndrome include impaired language development, social and communicative deficits, and repetitive and stereotyped behaviors such as hand flapping, rocking and unusual responses to sensory stimuli. Neurogeneticist Daniel Geschwind, M.D., Ph.D., director of the UCLA autism center, and colleagues seek to uncover the genetic basis for the disorder and have identified several genes they believe contribute to some autism.
To hear one family's story, go to http://streaming.uclahealth.org/autism

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