With just a month to go, time is running short for Congress to renew the landmark Combating Autism Act of 2006. A critical first step arrives Wednesday September 7 when the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee takes up S.1094, the Combating Autism Reauthorization Act of 2011(CARA.)
It is essential that a sufficient number of committee members attend the September 7 meeting and then vote to send the CARA bill on to the full Senate for a floor vote. Visit our CARA Champions page here to:
1) find out if your Senator is a member of the HELP Committee
2) make sure they have RSVP’d to attend this critical hearing and
3) find out how to encourage them to RSVP if they have not.
Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives must also vote its version of the CARA bill (HR.2005) out of the Energy & Commerce Committee and on to a floor vote. Once these steps are taken, the House and the Senate must agree on a final version of the CARA bill before it can be sent to President Obama for his signature. This is a lot of work! And it all has to get done by September 30!
Why is this so important? The enactment of the Combating Autism Act (CAA) in 2006 was an historic moment for our community as it has guided the federal government’s response to the staggering rise in autism across the United States. Because of the CAA, Congress was able to invest nearly $1 billion in federal resources through 2011 on biomedical and treatment research on autism. The law required the federal government to develop a strategic plan to expand and better coordinate the nation’s support for persons with autism and their families. Important research findings have resulted and critical studies are underway. Promising new interventions are making a difference in our children’s lives. For more CAA success stories, click here.
The CARA bill is sponsored in the Senate (S.1094) by Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Michael Enzi (R-WY,) and in the U.S. House of Representatives (HR.2005) by Congressmen Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Mike Doyle (D-PA.) CARA would continue the work started under the CAA for another three years and authorize Congress to dedicate another $693 million exclusively to autism research and treatment. To date, 23 other Senators and 61 House members have signed on as cosponsors, and President Obama has promised to sign a reauthorization bill this year.
Visit our CARA Action Center to find if your Senators and Representative are cosponsors. If they are not cosponsors, find out how you can get them to sign on.
Since the original Combating Autism Act was approved in 2006 with near-unanimous support in Congress and signed into law by then President George W. Bush, the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) has risen to 1 in 110 American children – including 1 in 70 boys. An estimated 1.5 million individuals in the U.S. are affected by autism, and government statistics suggest the prevalence rate is increasing 10-17 percent annually. America clearly must step up its response to autism. The responsibility lies with Congress and the answer is passing CARA.
Last week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee convened a panel of experts to investigate the role of environmental factors in autism spectrum disorders (ASD; link to web archive for video). Although genetic factors are known to contribute to the risk of autism, we also need to understand environmental factors and their interactions with genetic susceptibility.
The dramatic increase in autism prevalence over the last two decades—over 600% during this period—underscores the need for more research on environmental factors. Our understanding of typical brain development combined with what we’ve learned from examining the brains of individuals with autism have focused efforts on the prenatal and early postnatal environment. To investigate environmental factors that may be active during this time, researchers are casting a wide net on potential environmental agents that can alter neurodevelopment, including exposure to metals, pesticides, polybrominated diphenylethers and other chemicals.
Isaac Pessah, Ph.D., Director of the University of California, Davis, Children’s Center for Environmental Health and Disease Prevention, participated in the panel and said in his testimony, “We must identify which environmental exposures and combination of exposures are contributing to increased overall risk in the population and identify the most susceptible groups. Only by bringing together the concerted effort of multidisciplinary teams of scientists can we identify which of the >80,000 commercially important chemicals currently in production promote developmental neurotoxicity consistent with the immunological and neurological impairments identified in individuals with idiopathic autism”.
To help speed an understanding of environmental factors, Autism Speaks is supporting research on several fronts. In 2008, Autism Speaks launched the Environmental Factors Initiative to fund investigators researching aspects of environmental causes and autism.
A collaboration with the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has resulted in a network of 35 international scientists who gathered at this year’s International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) to promote collaboration, identify gaps in our understanding and foster opportunities for innovative research which is discussed in more detail in Dr. Dawson’s 2010 IMFAR recap. This fall, Autism Speaks and NIEHS will co-sponsor a workshop to help identify the most promising strategies and scientific directions for understanding the role of the environment in ASD.
A large collaborative study which will pull together data from six international registries is being funded by Autism Speaks to explore early environmental risk factors for ASD.
Autism Speaks is also leveraging longstanding investments to make the best use of research resources that currently exist. For example, the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE), a premiere genetic resource for scientists studying autism, is now collecting environmental data from families to pair with the genetic and medical data. Autism Speaks has partnered with the National Institutes of Health to fund the the EARLI and IBIS research networks to study environmental factors in infants at risk for autism. The EARLI network is following 1200 mothers of children with autism from the start of another pregnancy through the baby sibling’s third birthday. The IBIS network is charting the course of brain development in infant siblings of children with autism. Together with Autism Speaks, these groups are exploring both genetic and environmental risk factors for ASD.
Taken together, Autism Speaks’ investment in research on environmental factors promises to shed light on an important area of autism research that has until recently remained in the shadows. We look forwarding to following the new directions illuminated by the discoveries made possible by these various research opportunities.