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New autism center director talks research, treatment, and access

MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders

The MU Thompson Center for Autism is one of the nation's leading autism centers, combining treatment, training and research. Starting in September, the center will have a new director. I spoke with Stephen Kanne about the challenges and opportunities ahead for autism research, treatment and accessibility of treatment.

Over the past decade, autism numbers have been steadily rising. In March, the Centers For Disease Control announced the latest statistics: 1 in 88 kids is now diagnosed with the disorder.

"Most of us in the field and most of the research that's coming out attributes the greatest majority of that rise in numbers to -- not that there's necessarily more of it out there, just that we're diagnosing it better, and we're diagnosing more kids that might have been diagnosed with something else instead," said Kanne.

Kanne worked at the Thompson Center in its early years, heading up its diagnostic services, and has been studying autism since the late '90s.

"I was just fascinated by these kids, they're such a puzzle," he said of his first interactions with children with autism. "I've met some of the most interesting kids, in terms of how brilliant their minds could think, in terms of how they approach and see the world."

He said the bright side of the rising rate of diagnoses is that fewer people are going undiagnosed and untreated.

"Okay, so now we're finally recognizing and diagnosing people. The benefit of having those numbers is people recognize, this is a huge impact on an individual, a family, and our society. The more awareness there is, research can be done, to figure out what the heck is going on here, how can we treat it, what are the best treatments we can use to get to it."

The most promising area of autism research?

"Far and away the most exciting stuff is the genetics. The University of Missouri itself is involved in several of these studies where we're trying to match up what genes are associated with autism, and even beyond that, what genes are associated with what type of autism. And I think that's where this field is really maturing: it's not just that you have autism, it's what kind of autism do you have, and depending on what type of autism do you have, what is the genetic basis of that, and what is the best treatment then, that can go along with that."

Kanne, a native of Missouri, is currently director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Autism Center.