New center at Johns Hopkins unifies autism research, education efforts

Center's inaugural symposium will honor co-founders of Autism Speaks

In the United States, it isn't difficult to find someone whose life has been touched by autism. A neighbor. A colleague. A family member.

According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 88 children born in 2008 was identified as being on the autism spectrum. That's up from 1 in 110 just two years earlier and 1 in 150 in 2002. And the growing number of adults with the developmental disorder has created a colossal need for both private and public-sponsored services. What is causing this epidemic is unclear. The latest research points to genetics, with possible unknown environmental triggers.

With so much to be learned on an issue that impacts millions, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recently created the Wendy Klag Center for Autism & Developmental Disabilities in an effort to build a community of investigators and students with a common purpose. The center is named after Bloomberg School Dean Michael Klag's late wife, who passed away in 2006. Wendy Klag was a devoted mother of three and a staunch advocate for the developmentally disabled. The Klags' youngest daughter, Sarah, was diagnosed with autism at age 5. In the spring 2012 edition of Johns Hopkins Public Health magazine, Dean Klag wrote a moving essay about Sarah and described the emotional toll as the couple searched for answers. He described how this private challenge has served as motivation to support research into autism and developmental disabilities.

Next month, on Oct. 15, the center will host its inaugural symposium to bring together some of the leading voices and experts in the field of autism and developmental disabilities. Klag will use the occasion to present the Dean's Medal to Suzanne and Bob Wright, co-founders of Autism Speaks, an advocacy group that funds research and raises public awareness about autism and its effects on individuals, families, and societies. The Wrights co-founded Autism Speaks in honor of their grandson, who was diagnosed with autism, a disorder typically characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors.

The event will be kicked off by introductions from Klag Center director M. Daniele Fallin and associate director Janet DiPietro. Fallin says the event will serve as a launch of the new center.

"We are excited that the Wendy Klag Center in the School of Public Health will add to the rich history of autism research started by Johns Hopkins and Kennedy Krieger Institute," said Fallin, chair of the Department of Mental Health at the Bloomberg School. "Autism and other developmental disabilities are a growing public health concern, and we hope to enhance the public health impact of work across these institutions. Understanding causes and exploring services, policies, and social dynamics are just a few areas of focus."

The symposium's featured speakers include Lisa Croen, director of Kaiser Permanente's Autism Research Program, who will talk about the epidemiology of autism and how genetics and environment may interact; and David Mandell, a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine and the associate director of the Center for Autism Research in the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who will talk about building a system of care for people with autism. Other speakers are Rebecca Landa of Kennedy Krieger Institute; Jennifer Mulle of Emory University; and Maureen Black of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The event, which will be shown live via webcast and is open to the entire JHU community, will also include a "student experience panel" moderated by Elizabeth Stuart, associate director of the Wendy Klag Center and an associate professor in the departments of Mental Health and Biostatistics at the Bloomberg School. The panel, which will feature a former Wendy Klag Scholar, his adviser, and a current doctoral student, is intended to inspire collaborations that nurture students and further research.

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Tagged autism