It’s likely that someone you know has autism. April is Autism Awareness Month and recognition of this disorder is very important because it impacts one out of 68 people and their families.
Autism is a developmental behaviorally-defined syndrome. Children and adults with autism struggle with social skills, communication and repetitive behaviors/interests.
Hye Young Lee, Ph.D., is head of the Lee Lab at UT Health San Antonio, and her team study underlying mechanisms and new treatment options for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Her team consists of members from different backgrounds and varied career stages. The one thing they all have in common is a shared desire to uncover underlying mechanisms and new treatment options for autism spectrum disorders. “We give opportunity to everybody, regardless of age or experience, as long as you are motivated and are eager to learn,” says Dr. Lee.
The concept of autism being a spectrum means that each person may be affected differently.
Some children may be nonverbal, while others are more comfortable talking. Some may have physical ticks, such as rocking or tapping, and others may feel the need to repeat an action, like stacking blocks in the same pattern.
Depending on where they fall on the spectrum, these challenges can follow them into adulthood; meaning each child may need support from their family throughout their life.
The Lee Lab is dedicated to answering questions like: What causes autism and how do we understand it on a cellular and behavioral level? How do we develop the right therapeutics to treat it?
Dr. Lee’s team was able to make a breakthrough in potential treatment by using a non-viral gene editing tool called CRISPR-Gold to cut out an autism-causal gene in a safe and effective way during lab trials.
“I think the brain is fantastic, but also very difficult to understand,” says Dr. Lee, “I always wanted to do brain research, specifically neurodevelopmental disorders, because in my personal opinion this is a disorder that can impact a person or a family for their entire life. So this would be a really important question to resolve and I want to help the society by studying these disorders.”
Dr. Lee says that people need to recognize the signs and be aware of how important early diagnosis is to get the proper treatment and education. Parents also need to understand the disorder, rather than deny it if they want to be able to help their child and themselves live a better life, she says. The symptoms of autism can’t go away, but they can be minimized through effective therapy.
Dr. Lee hopes to see more involvement of the autism community in everyday life.
“Society should have more activities for autistic children and non-autistic individuals to interact. Oftentimes, autistic kids are put in schools or environments with people like themselves, so I hope that there will be more opportunities going forward to be aware about this disorder and create a connected community,” she said.
When it comes to creating a more autism-friendly community, Dr. Lee’s message is: “Try not to differentiate individuals with autism too much. They’re people, like everyone else, who just need extra love and attention.”