Advances in autism research drive new therapies

In this installment of Autism: Life on the Spectrum, Fox 5 News looks at advances being made in autism research and the new treatments that are emerging.

Carefully counting down to launching on his sled is a significant sign of progress for Odin Connelly. The 6-year-old boy has autism, with what are described as "emerging verbal skills."

"When a neuro-typical person walks into a room and bunch of people say 'Hello,' they typically say 'Hello' back. Odin doesn't do that," says Serena, Odin's mom.

Autism is a complex disorder that often has no clear cause. That is why Tim and Serena Connelly wanted to find out as much as they could.

"Right before he started nursery school for autistic children we had him do a whole gamut of evaluations," Tim says.

Research not available decades ago includes a study called a VB-MAPP, a detailed analysis of verbal behavior.

"We hadn't really realized or we hadn't completely come to terms with what autism was in his case -- because it's different for every kid -- and how it was affecting him specifically," Serena says.

"I would say we've made huge advances in understanding how to help these kids," says Dr. Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, a child psychiatrist with Columbia University Department of Psychiatry. He says new studies into oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone in the body, are an exciting research development.

"Oxytocin changes social behavior, changes attention to a face, changes your desire to be near another person or interact with another person," Dr. Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele says. "And that may be powerful for some kids with autism spectrum disorder."

But there is no one type of autism. So he says there is likely no one solution. 

"I usually don't think in terms of a cure. Kids with autism keep developing," he says, adding that the development curve of a child with autism looks different from a child in the general population. "If we can tilt that a little bit, it gives a child opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have," he says.

Odin's parents say detailed studies like this have helped guide therapy, making an immediate impact. The points of progress Odin has made in just six months are small steps on the long road ahead.