Skip Navigation

Your Environment. Your Health.

ARRA Investments in Autism

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA)

Autism Image Logo

"Autism is a devastating disorder that is on the rise throughout our nation. It is essential that we conduct research on environmental causes of autism if we hope to prevent and treat this condition. We are grateful for the additional funds provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which will boost our autism research by more than $3 million, allowing us to more than double our effort to understand this terrible life-long condition."
— Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP)

What is Autism?

Autism or Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of complex neurodevelopmental syndromes that are diagnosed by impairments in communication and social interaction, along with restrictive patterns of behavior or interest.  The impact of ASD can range from mild to severe. Signs or symptoms of ASD include the following:

  • Communication – difficulties with both verbal (spoken) and non-verbal communication (unspoken, such as pointing, eye contact, and smiling)
  • Social interactions – difficulties with sharing emotions, understanding how others think and feel, and engaging in the 'back and forth' of a conversation
  • Routines or repetitive behaviors (also called stereotyped behaviors) – tendencies to repeat words or actions, play in repetitive ways, and obsessively following routines or schedules.

The symptoms of autism can usually be observed within the first two years of life.

How prevalent is Autism Spectrum Disorder in the U.S.?

Though Autism was once considered a rare condition, the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate for ASD prevalence indicates that 1% of children, or 1 in 110, in the United States is affected by the disorder—more than a 10-fold increase from the early 1990s.  As a result, Autism has become an urgent public health challenge, with enormous financial and societal costs.

What causes Autism?

As with many complex disorders, the cause of autism is thought to involve some combination of genetic risk and non-genetic environmental exposures. The wide diversity of symptoms among individuals affected by autism suggests that there may be many different causes for autism. The potential for environmental agents to contribute to the incidence of autism has been confirmed in cases where early exposure to certain toxicants (e.g., thalidomide, valproic acid) has led to a markedly increased risk of autism spectrum disorders Although the precise role of the environment in causing autism is unknown, recent studies exploring a range of exposures and potential physiologic vulnerabilities in autism are providing important clues.

How is the Recovery Act (ARRA) advancing research to address Autism?

NIEHS is using ARRA dollars to further research on ASD, including its underlying biology and methods for earlier and more effective diagnosis. By collaborating with several other NIH Institutes and Centers, NIEHS is participating in one of the largest single-funded opportunities for ASD research in NIH’s history. NIEHS funding will support numerous two-year projects that address ASD measurement, genetics/genomics, and environmental risk factors that further ASD intervention and treatment.


Recovery Act Spotlight

Investigating the link between environmental exposures and Autism Spectrum Disorder prevalence

ResearcherResearch Description
Lisa A. Croen, Ph.D.
Kaiser Permanente, Northern California
Prenatal Exposure to Polyfluoroalkyl Compounds in the Early Markers of Autism (EMA) Study
Dr. Croen will investigate the possible relationship between environmental polyfluoroalkyl compounds (PFC) exposure and subsequent diagnosis with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in childhood.
Alan Brown, M.D.
New York State Psychiatric Institute
Prenatal Factors and Risk of Autism in Finnish Birth Cohort
Dr. Brown will investigate whether exposure to environmental factors during pregnancy are related to the likelihood that children will be diagnosed with autism. Factors under the study include infections, immune abnormalities, hormones, and smoking.
Danielle Fallin, Ph.D.
Johns Hopkins University
Genome Wide Interaction Study for Autism: The SEED Study
Dr. Fallin’s project builds on an existing multi-center project, the Study to Explore Early Development (SEED), and will identify genes whose effects on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may vary across exposure related to prenatal infection, maternal medication use, smoking and ethanol intake.
Robert McConnell, M.D.
University of Southern California
Investigating Gene-Environment Interaction in Autism: Air Pollution
Dr. McConnell will examine the potential effects of traffic-related air pollution on risk of developing autism spectrum disorders (ASD) using data collected in the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study. The project explores an emerging area of research on the effects of air pollution on neurodevelopment.

What else is NIEHS doing in Autism research?

NIEHS supports a variety of research efforts in autism, such as epidemiology studies to investigate genetic and environmental risk factors contributing to the development of Autism Spectrum Disorder. NIEHS supported research includes:

  1. The Center for Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention at UC-Davis: Established with joint funding from NIEHS and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2001, this Center is examining the roles of a wide range of toxic chemicals, genetic predisposition, and the interplay between these two in altering brain development during early life and leading to abnormal social behavior in children.  The Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and Environment (CHARGE) study is an important component of this Center and is currently exploring a number of potential environmental, immunologic and genomic markers of autism risk.

  2. Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI): NIEHS, together with National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, awarded an Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) to Drexel University to launch the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI).  EARLI is enrolling mothers with one or more children with autism who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. The mothers and the new babies are closely followed throughout the pregnancy and the first three years of life to identify how early environmental factors and genetic predisposition may affect the risk for autism.

Additional Links

 Back to top Back to top

Back to Top