Vol. 12 No. 9 - April, 2010

UMMS commemorates World Autism Awareness Day

autism building

Partnering with Autism Speaks, the world’s largest autism science and advocacy organization, UMass Medical School splashed its façade with the Autism Speaks puzzle-piece logo in bright blue lights on the night of April 2. The event was part of “Light It Up Blue,” a global effort to heighten awareness of autism, a complex neurobiological disorder that now affects an estimated 1 in 110 children in the United States. Landmark buildings around the world were bathed in blue light for the third annual celebration of World Autism Awareness Day, established in 2007 by a resolution passed unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly. Autism is one of only three health issues to be recognized by the U.N. in such a way, underscoring its devastating public health impact.

“Our participation in Light It Up Blue is a tangible way for us to demonstrate our efforts in raising awareness about autism in our community,” said Jean A. Frazier, MD, the Robert M. and Shirley S. Siff Chair in Autism and professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UMMS. “This symbolizes our dedication to serving individuals with autism and their families through our clinical care, training and education efforts, advocacy and research.

“We’re part of the Autism Consortium, a network of researchers and clinicians, funders and families, across the state, who are working together in a focused effort to advance the understanding, diagnosis and treatment of autism,” said Dr. Frazier, a highly regarded expert in child and adolescent neuropsychiatry. “We are actively involved in the Consortium’s research efforts to discover new genes involved in autism spectrum disorders, establish efficient assessment batteries for diagnosis and better understand family characteristics.”

Autism spectrum disorders, a group of complex developmental disabilities that can cause social, communication and behavioral challenges, affect as many as 1 in 110 children in the United States, and is more common in boys, affecting close to 1 in 70. Symptoms typically appear in infancy as a lack of ability to communicate and as behaviors that differ from other children of the same age.

When parents suspect their child is not meeting developmental milestones, screening and early intervention are critical, said Robin H. Adair, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at UMMS and the medical director of the Infant-toddler and Preschool Clinics and a specialist in developmental and behavioral pediatrics at UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center. “Because therapeutic interventions have the greatest impact when started before age three, early detection is critically important. With early intervention, children have a greater chance of succeeding in school and in their communities.”

Kelly Hurley, a mother of two children on the autism spectrum, is an autism resource specialist with UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center, helping to direct families of children newly diagnosed with autism to a broad array of resources to help their child reach his or her full potential. “I remember quite vividly being in their shoes,” Ms. Hurley said of the parents she works with, describing the often overwhelmed feeling they have, not only about the diagnosis but about the appropriate treatment plans and how to access services. “The Light It Up Blue display here was a reminder to all of the remarkable people who have autism and their amazing families that UMass Medical School and UMass Memorial are here to support them on their journey.”