Study Seeks to Better Understand Causes of Autism

U-M is looking for families with a child or children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder to take part in a national study aimed at speeding up research and insight into the disorder.

7:00 AM

Author | Stephanie Rhodes

Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is associated with a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication and is common, with about 1 in 59 children identified with ASD, according to the CDC.

LISTEN UP: Add the new Michigan Medicine News Break to your Alexa-enabled device, or subscribe to our daily audio updates on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

Current research suggests that differences in the development of the brain and central nervous system cause autism, but it's unclear what causes those differences nor are there any approved medications to treat core ASD symptoms.

U-M researchers want to help change this.

A research team at the U-M Department of Psychiatry is looking to recruit 600 families with a child or children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), part of a national effort coordinated through the Simons Foundation. Their landmark autism research project, known as SPARK (the acronym stands for Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge), is looking at 50,000 families across 27 clinical sites nationwide over several years.

Costanza Colombi, Ph.D., research assistant professor of psychiatry, is leading the study in Michigan.

"We are looking at DNA from people with autism and from their family members who may or may not have autism," Colombi says. "This DNA will help us shed light into the genetics of autism and hopefully improve patient care. We will also use information collected to study overall health, behavior and lifestyle."

"This study is the largest genetic study of autism ever, and I am so excited about its potential to help families struggling with ASD."

How it works

The DNA is collected through a simple saliva sample. The study team needs saliva samples from both parents and the child to get a complete picture. Anyone in Michigan with a diagnosis of ASD is able to participate.

SEE ALSO: Autism Speech Language Therapy for Teens Using Board Games

Volunteers can go to the clinic in Ann Arbor or they can be mailed a saliva kit and send it back with a prepaid shipping label.

Participants will also complete a 20-minute questionnaire asking them about their ASD diagnosis, medical history and communication skills. Patients have the option to complete the questionnaire online or at the U-M offices in Ann Arbor. There are no age restrictions.

Families can earn either a $25 or $50 Amazon gift card depending on how many family members participate.

The research

"The sheer size of this study will allow us to speed up research and advance our understanding of autism," says Colombi. "So far only a small portion of people who have autism participate in research, and we want to change that. The more people enrolled in our study, the greater understanding we will have and the better we will be able to serve families with an autism diagnosis."

To participate in the study, or to learn more, contact the U-M SPARK team via email at [email protected] or by phone at 734-232-0196.

More Articles About: Health Management Health Screenings Genetic Testing Autism Children's Health
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of healthcare news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]


Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Featured News & Stories purple all notifications on phone teen sleeping in bed with phone next to them
Health Lab
Study: Average teen received more than 200 app notifications a day
A Michigan Medicine expert explains more of a report’s key findings on cell phone use and how parents can support a healthy use of technology.
stethoscope in gun outline
Health Lab
Many primary care providers and patients wary of discussing firearms
Screening primary care patients for gun ownership has been recommended especially for people with mental health issues. A Michigan Medicinestudy shows wariness by providers and patients.
kids on the floor
Health Lab
Protecting children from poor air quality: 6 things to know
As smoke from Canada's historic wildfires triggers poor air quality alerts across the country, many parents worry about the impact on their child’s health, a national poll suggests. Here, a Michigan Medicine expert provides six ways to help reduce exposure.
MRI scan drawing
Health Lab
Whole-body MRIs aren't as beneficial as they seem
While it's tempting to know what's going on inside your entire body, a clinical perspective piece, written by a radiologist at the University of Michigan, discusses some of the harms of imaging low risk patients, such as overdiagnosis, overtreatment and their related complications
kids in classroom playing
Health Lab
Sensitive parenting and preschool attendance may promote academic resilience in late preterm infants
Michigan Medicine research tracks academic trajectories of late preterm infants from infancy to kindergarten and identifies developmental risks and how to best promote resilience
sleeping kids purple teal orange pink
Health Lab
Sleep apnea disparities in kids: Obesity may override impact of race, socioeconomics
As researchers explored potential reasons behind racial disparities in treatment outcomes for children with severe sleep apnea, they were expecting to find the answer in socioeconomic factors. But they were surprised to learn that when one risk factor – obesity – was taken out of the equation, race was no longer associated with worse post-surgery outcomes for obstructive sleep apnea.