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UNC leads publics in autism research

As the nation celebrates autism awareness month, this past year has seen many breakthroughs in autism research — and many have occurred on UNC’s campus.

UNC was ranked the No. 1 public institution for autism research in a 2012 report from the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, a federal advisory committee.

Autism, a neurodevelopment disorder that often affects people early in life, impacts people’s development of social and communication skills.

Programs like UNC’s TEACCH Autism Program, and student groups like Autism Speaks U, are just part of why the University was granted this honor.

Laura Klinger, director of TEACCH, said the honor could be attributed to the diverse faculty members who study autism.

“What makes UNC unique is that we have so many (faculty) that specialize in autism that putting us together allows for collaboration that doesn’t exist at other universities,” said Klinger.

Klinger said TEACCH is a clinical and applied research program.

“TEACCH has a mission of developing intervention programs for individuals with autism. And providing those individual services to those in the community,” Klinger said.

Julie Daniels, an associate professor in the Gillings School of Public Health, is the principal investigator for two Centers for Disease Control studies, one of which was released on March 28. The study found that the national rate for autism spectrum disorder was 1 in 68 in 2010 and 1 in 58 in North Carolina.

Daniels said UNC’s extensive research program is a large part of why UNC was ranked so high.

“We’ve learned a lot about autism over the past couple of decades, but have a long way to go,” Daniels said in an email. “The commitment and focus of UNC researchers gives me hope that we will be able to better understand this disorder and be able to reduce the disability associated with it in the coming years.”

UNC’s Autism Speaks President Isabel Kenny said the group’s primary focus is raising money for research, which is sent to the national organization Autism Speaks, and dispersed to different facilities conducting research.

“I’m very passionate about working with people with disabilities,” Kenny said. “Even though they’re all under this broad phenotype, I’m interested in it.”

Autism Speaks Vice President Shayna Purcell said she got involved with the group because of her experience working with individuals with autism in high school.

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Klinger said the research at UNC covers a wide spectrum, from infants to adults.

“The breadth of what we do at UNC is so large,” Klinger said.