CDC awards UA $1.7 million for autism research

Posted on Jun 14, 2010 in Health & Wellness

Stephanie Innes Arizona Daily Star | Posted: Saturday, June 5, 2010 12:00 am | Comments

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is awarding $1.7 million to the University of Arizona for autism research.

The Steele Children’s Research Center at the UA College of Medicine is one of 11 sites nationwide receiving money as part of a four-year program, UA officials announced this week.

Local researchers plan on using the money to continue their work on the identification of children with autism spectrum disorders and intellectual abilities, a UA press release says.

Dr. Christopher Cunniff, a professor of pediatrics at the UA College of Medicine, is the principal investigator of the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Surveillance Program, which is a partnership between the UA and the CDC.

Also leading the local research team are epidemiologist Sydney Pettygrove, an assistant professor at the UA’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health; and Dr. Sydney Rice, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the UA College of Medicine.

The other 10 study areas are Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin.

The sites are part of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network that will provide comparable, population-based estimates of the number of children who have autism and related disorders in different sites over time.

Autism is a brain disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate, to reason and to interact with others. It affects individuals differently and to varying degrees of severity, and it is often found in combination with other disabilities.

The terms “autism” and “autism spectrum disorder” are often used interchangeably. Among conditions included on the autism spectrum are Asperger’s, pervasive developmental disorder and Rett syndrome.

Cunniff’s research, which was part of a federal report released last year, has shown a sharp spike in autism cases in Arizona between 2002 and 2006. In each year of the study – 2002 and 2006 – researchers studied different groups of 8-year-olds, since most children are diagnosed by age 8.

Cunniff found in 2006 that Arizona’s autism prevalence was about one in 83 children – much higher than the rate of one in 100 found in other regions.

He has said the reasons for the increase likely include more awareness of autism, better reporting and broader criteria of what defines autism-spectrum disorder.

The significant jump in cases also can’t rule out other forces at work – either environmental or possibly genetic.

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or