Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is one of the most perplexing neurodevelopmental conditions facing modern medicine today, with lifelong implications for affected families and society at large. A new center, the Hawkeye Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (Hawk-IDDRC), seeks to integrate multi-disciplinary research with clinical care, teaching, and community outreach to learn more about the prevention and diagnosis of intellectual and developmental disabilities and improve treatment outcomes. This research project, the first of the Hawk-IDDRC, will examine the interaction of genetic and environmental risks in young children with ASD.
We will use an innovative new smartphone application, BabySteps, to enroll and collect data on 300 mothers and their children between 2 and 3 years of age, over a 6-month period. Children will also provide a genetic sample, which will be compared with universally-collected newborn screening blood spots to look for changes in DNA methylation that may be indicative of ASD.
We expect to find genetic markers of autism. If so, we hope that it may be possible to diagnose autism earlier in childhood, perhaps with the mere prick of a finger, to allow for earlier intervention and better outcomes. We also hope this project will serve as a model for future collaborations between clinicians, researchers, physicians, scientists, and the community; so that this research will inform far more than science, but also individuals with ASD and their families.
What will this help with?
Despite decades of intensive research into the cause of this disorder, a unifying etiology is yet to be discovered. Our hope is that this work will procure a greater understanding of the roles of intrinsic and extrinsic factors that contribute to the development of autism. Understanding how the early environment interacts with genetic vulnerability will provide an unprecedented opportunity to reassess early intervention and prevention strategies.