One of the main symptoms of autism is impaired language skills, which make it difficult to determine whether a child has autism. Administering standard tests for autism becomes impossible if a child cannot understand verbal instructions. Working with autistic children and their families, Boston University Professor Helen Tager-Flusberg has developed a test for autism that can be given to children who lack language skills.

The test is administered on a special computer monitor that tracks a child’s eye movements. Healthy children respond predictably to familiar images on the screen, while children with signs of autism often fail to recognize these images.

This non-invasive test can alert parents to a child’s risk of autism, and also give them an early start on managing the disorder. “We know that the earlier you begin the intervention, the greater the chance of reducing symptom severity,” Tager-Flusberg says. The technology also has the potential to be a tool for treatment. Manipulating images on the computer screen could be a way of intervening in the progress of the disease.

Some 1.5 million Americans have been diagnosed with autism.

It can be a devastating disability, limiting the ability to communicate and interact with others. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every 110 newborns has autism.Due in part to improved diagnosis, it is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the United States and around the world—increasing at an annual rate of between 10 and 17 percent.

When autism is diagnosed early, the odds that treatment will be effective improve dramatically—and by changing the way they interact with a child, parents can reduce the severity of the disorder as the child grows.  In the intensifying battle against autism, Boston University researchers are helping to develop important new weapons, including tools for early diagnoses.

Firsts and new approaches

Boston University Medical School has long been a leader in research into autism. Major grants from the National Institutes of Health and Autism Speaks have supported research that has led to important discoveries at the school. More than 20 years ago, for example, two faculty members, Thomas Kemper and Margaret Bauman, found abnormalities in the brains of autistic patients—confirming for the first time a biological basis for autism.

Today, this research approach is being carried on in Associate Professor Gene Blatt’s Laboratory for Autism Neuroscience Research. Investigators in the lab are exploring the pathology of the disorder by studying tissues from people with autism.  Meanwhile, Tager-Flusberg and other researchers are using brain imaging to discover how and why autism develops. Hundreds of children and their families have come to the medical school to explore with researchers strategies for coping with the autism.

Autism research at Boston University spans departments and schools. It involves teams of researchers in the neurosciences, psychiatry, pediatric neurology, psychology, family studies, and social policy. With this multidisciplinary approach, Boston University School of Medicine is leading the way to new approaches to treating this serious disorder.

Sample giving opportunities

  • Create and name an endowed professorship for the faculty of the program: $1.25 million for an assistant professor, $2.5 million for a full professor
  • Endow a research fund: $100,000
  • Endow a scholarship for a BUSM student: $100,000
  • Endow a postdoctoral fellowship: $100,000
  • Create a current-use fellowship award: $10,000
  • Provide unrestricted support as a member of the BUSM Dean’s Club: $1,500 and above