Autism Symposium Focuses on Life Transitions; Offers Providers, Families Latest Insights and Research News
Researchers and clinicians are facing watershed moments in the field of autism, manifested in basic science studies and new clinical therapies that may pave the way for greater understanding of autism spectrum disorders, and improved care for children with these disorders.
That was the major takeaway from Growing Up with Autism: Life Transitions, a symposium sponsored by the Weill Cornell Autism Research Program (WCARP) in participation with The Clinical and Translational Science Center (CTSC), on May 11 at Weill Cornell Medical College. The program offered families and health care providers the latest information about and insight into autism research and clinical treatments and therapies, focusing on autism patients' transition from childhood into adulthood.
"The sun is shining in New York City today, and I think the sun is shining in the field of autism," said Dr. Barry Kosofsky, who is the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Professor of Pediatrics as well as professor of pediatrics in radiology, professor of neurology and neuroscience and the principal investigator of the Weill Cornell Autism Research Program. "We are in the midst of a revolution in our thinking regarding the diagnosis, therapies and understanding of autism spectrum disorders."
Two panels of experts discussed just that during the day-long symposium, attended by nearly 200 people at Uris Auditorium and Griffis Faculty Club. The first panel, focused on research, featured Dr. John Walkup, vice chair of the Department of Psychiatry and director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; Dr. B.J. Casey, director of Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology; Dr. Francis Lee, professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry; and Dr. Anjali Rajadhyaksha, associate professor of neuroscience in pediatrics and associate professor of neuroscience. The panelists relayed information about novel research into autism spectrum disorders and brain development.
The second panel focused on clinical treatment and featured Dr. Catherine Lord, assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry and director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital's campus in Westchester; Dr. John Brown, director of training and programs in applied behavior analysis at Hunter College; Dr. Michael Siller, an assistant professor in the Psychology Department at Hunter College and co-director of the Hunter College Autism Center; and Linda Meyer, executive director of Autism New Jersey and a consultant in private practice. The panelists shared the real-world applications of that basic science research.
The symposium also featured the insights of Dr. Martha Herbert, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and a pediatric neurologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who recently published a new book, "The Autism Revolution: Whole Body Strategies for Making Life All It Can Be." In addition, the event included breakout groups as well as a tabling session featuring local community organizations which provide services for autistic children in the region.
"The goal of the symposium is to communicate advances in research to service providers as well as families to try to give them a sense of current thinking," said Dr. Kosofsky, also chief of the Division of Child Neurology at Weill Cornell and an attending physician at NewYork-Presbyterian's Phyllis and David Komansky Center for Children's Health. "We're trying to make it as practical as possible."
The autism symposium began last year as a byproduct of the Weill Cornell Autism Research Program, Dr. Kosofsky said. Established four years ago with the support of the Clinical and Translational Science Center, the program and its multidisciplinary scientists engage in research to improve the understanding behind the genetics and brain chemistry of autism spectrum disorders.
The investigators seek to better identify the physical and behavioral features demonstrated by patients with autism as a starting point in detecting the contributing genetic factors of autism, and potentially any related brain imaging changes. To accomplish this, the investigators enrolled more than 50 families affected by autism in a clinical study that includes clinical evaluations comprised of neuropsychological testing and the drawing of blood to see if they can identify any genetic basis for autism. The investigators sent the first batch of donated blood for testing a month ago, and will use a newly created database with four different sets of clinical information to look for patterns in the genes that may contribute to autism.
The symposium is one way to provide these families with some return on their personal investment, Dr. Kosofsky said. The first, co-hosted last spring at Hunter College, focused on autistic children from birth to five years of age and provided information on signs and symptoms, diagnoses and evaluations. This year's symposium picked up at the transition from childhood to adulthood.
Helping patients, parents and institutions (schools and hospitals) cope with the challenge of the transitions from adolescence to adulthood is one of our greatest challenges in pediatrics," said Dr. Gerald Loughlin, Nancy C. Paduano Professor and chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College and pediatrician-in-chief of the NewYork-Presbyterian Phyllis and David Komansky Center for Children's Health. "It's a good problem to have because it means that children are living longer and are interested and able to engage in typical activities of daily living, but it's also our greatest challenge."