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“Rest assured, you have the attention of the President and the White House”

“Rest assured, you have the attention of the President and the White House”
My first meeting as a public member of the IACC

By Geri Dawson, Chief Science Officer

Last Friday was my first meeting as a public member of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC). It was a particularly momentous meeting for the IACC because, for the first time, Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), attended the meeting along with two colleagues from DHHS, Howard Koh, Assistant Secretary for Health, and Henry Claypool, Director, Office on Disability. In addition, two representatives from the White House, Michael Strautmanis, Chief of Staff to the Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Engagement, and Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy, attended the meeting. Moreover, Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, addressed the IACC. It was an auspicious beginning to my experience on this committee, to be sure.

The Secretary began by welcoming five new members to the IACC, which included Gerald Fischbach from the Simons Foundation, Marjorie Solomon from the MIND Institute at UC Davis, Ari Ne’Eman from the Autism Self-Advocacy Network, Denise Resnik from the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, and me, representing Autism Speaks. Secretary Sebelius began by telling the committee members that we “need to leverage all of our assets” and “work together across all agencies” to address the “alarming increase in autism rates” as well the need for “top notch research and services.”  She promised that she will be taking very seriously the recommendations that come from the IACC. She told the committee, “Rest assured, you have the attention of the President and the White House.”  Kareem Dale reiterated these themes, remarking that the White House’s goal and mission are to give autism issues the “highest level of attention.” 

These encouraging remarks were followed by those of Dr. Collins, who also previously served as the Director of the NIH Genome Institute and the Human Genome Project. He began by stressing the need to understand the causes of autism and ways of preventing and treating this challenging condition. “I get the sense of urgency,” Collins remarked, a point he said was especially made clear to him during an earlier meeting he held this year with parents and members of autism advocacy groups. “Parents are never happier than their saddest child,” he remarked, “and if we can help with our resources, that’s what we want to do.”  He noted that the IACC is distinguished among other government committees by its membership and activism, a fact that reflects the passion and urgency of the autism community. Dr. Collins shared his enthusiasm for the important role of genetics in the discovery of causes and treatments for autism, noting in particular, the exciting results of the Novartis clinical trial that was featured on the front page of last Friday’s New York Times. He stated that he didn’t think that the whole story is DNA, however, and that environmental factors and their interaction with genetic factors play key roles in understanding the causes of autism. In this regard, he described the National Children’s Study, a huge NIH effort to follow 100,000 children from conception through adulthood to discover how environmental exposures are influencing children’s health outcomes. He explained that autism is one of the stronger reasons for investing in this expensive effort. He also noted that research on behavioral interventions for ASD continue to be important. The necessity to avoid conservatism in the types of grants NIH funds, especially during hard economic times, was highlighted. Collins encouraged “out of the box” ideas that can open new perspectives and directions for autism research. He ended by again expressing his awareness of the great suffering that is experienced by many people with autism spectrum disorders and their families, ending with a quote from Winston Churchill – “If you are going through hell, keep going.”  “Let’s all keep going,” he urged the IACC members, “because on the other side, there will be more understanding and more hope.” 

I had the pleasure of giving the first talk after Dr. Collins. I reported on the activities and achievements of Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network (ATN). I described the goals of the ATN, which include improving access and quality of medical care for children with ASD, developing evidence-based treatment guidelines, providing clinician training in the medical treatment of ASD, and conducting research on medical treatments. I described the network of 14 academic centers that comprise the ATN, which provides care for over 5,000 children (with over 2,000 now part of the ATN patient registry). Based on data collected through the registry, I described the common kinds of medical issues that many children with ASD face, including GI problems, sleep disturbances, neurological conditions, among others. I also described the vision for the ATN, which is to increase the number of centers nationwide, improve quality of care through training and guideline development, and provide empirical support for novel and effective treatments for ASD. After my presentation, several people remarked that they were not previously aware of the extent to which medical conditions affect the quality of life for individuals with ASD. To read more about the other presentations at last Friday’s IACC meeting, click here.

It is an honor to serve people with autism and their families on the IACC. I will do my best to represent all those who are suffering because of autism. My first charge will be to do everything I can to persuade our government to keep the promises made at Friday’s meeting of the IACC.

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