Rush and the ‘Transformative’ SPARK Autism Study

aarts-spark-heerwagenBy Katy Heerwagen

At the Autism Assessment, Research, Treatment and Services (AARTS) Center, we see a wide range of individuals with autism spectrum disorder. As a lifespan center, we may see a 12-month-old for an evaluation and hours later provide therapy for a man in his 40s. In a given day, I can deliver play-based interventions to a nonverbal 2-year-old boy in the morning and provide career-focused counseling to a 27-year-old woman exploring technology jobs in the afternoon. We encounter individuals who have been able to develop a comprehensive program of services and those who continuously struggle to access often-costly resources.

In each of my experiences, I return to the same thought: How can a single disorder look so vastly different for every individual I see?

‘So much we do not know’

This question is at the center of a new research initiative led by members of various departments here at Rush. The SPARK study — Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge — is, at its core, an ambitious, first-of-its-kind autism genetics study aiming to involve 50,000 individuals with autism and their family members. The goal is simple: to advance our understanding of the genetic components of autism and speed up autism research. In adopting this mission, we acknowledge that there is still so much we do not know, and that we need the investment of tens of thousands of individuals to answer the many questions that remain.

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