Autism study looks for answers

May 13, 2010 4:16:17 PM PDT
A new study at Drexel University is trying to answer what is causes autism.

Julianna Malone is a highly intelligent 7-year-old. It's something her parents first noticed when she was just a toddler.

"She would memorize books in their entirety. Green Eggs and Ham being the first one and then movie scripts," Julianna's mother Megan said.

But what they thought was a peculiar ability turned out to be the first sign Julianna was autistic.

She was officially diagnosed when she was 5-years-old with Asperger's, a mild form of autism.

Megan is now expecting baby number two, another girl, to be named Isabella.

Like many parents of kids on the spectrum, she wonders if Isabella will also have autism. The risk is greater for her, but researchers aren't sure by how much.

The EARLI study, or Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation, hopes to find out. It is a large, 10 year study with several testing sites, including one at Drexel University.

Amy Kelly, the lead recruiter in Philadelphia, has a daughter who was diagnosed with autism at age 2 when she was 8 months pregnant with another child.

"I didn't personally sleep for 3 years because I just didn't know what the chances were of my new baby having autism," Kelly said.

The study follows women who are 20 weeks pregnant or less, who already have one autistic child. They'll take real time surveys about everything from diet to home environment; home visits will be made and biological tests taken, hoping to narrow the possible causes, both environmental and genetic.

"I think we're going to be able to make correlations that have not been able to be made before," Kelly said.

It will be a 3 to 4 year commitment for the Malones, but they are happy to help put the pieces of the autism puzzle together.

Whether Isabella will be on the spectrum, Megan and her husband say it doesn't matter. They've learned to handle the struggles and appreciate the gifts autism brings to Julianna.

"She loves getting straight A's, she talks about it all the time and she gains self-esteem from that," Megan said.

One major benefits of this study is that the new babies will be followed very closely by experts at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. So if the child is autistic, he or she will be diagnosed early so treatment can start early.


Drexel University and the Center for Autism Reserach: This site will enroll participants from Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties in Pennsylvania
From Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Mercer, and Salem Counties in New Jersey
From New Castle County in Delaware