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Obama brain initiative announced on World Autism Day

The Obama administration's announcement on Monday that they would be dedicating funds to further investigate and map the brain could not have come at a more appropriate time for autism advocates. Monday also marked World Autism Day, which was created in order to bring attention to the group of developmental disabilities known as autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

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BRAIN -- which stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies -- is a $100 million project that is focused on mapping the brain to better understand its function, and hopefully one day understand the causes and treatments for certain diseases. Autism advocates and organizations like Autism Speaks hope that this push will help reveal the mysteries behind the disorder..

"There's still so many unanswered questions," Autism Speaks president Liz Feld told "We know very little about the causes of autism."

ASDs are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.

ASDs can range in severity from people with nonspecific symptoms of a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), to milder symptoms -- called Asperger's syndrome -- to severe disorder that affects functioning more.

Usually, people with ASDs do not respond to their name by 12 months. They also may not point to objects to show interest or play "pretend" games by 18 months. They may have difficulties making eye contact and may want to be left alone. People with ASDs often have a hard time understanding feelings or talking about their feelings. They may have delayed speech and language skills, repeat phrases or give unrelated responses. They may also become obsessed with a certain topic or interest. Minor changes may be upsetting, and these individuals may have unusual reactions to various sound, smell, taste, look and tactile stimuli. Flapping arms, rocking the body or spinning in circles can also be observed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that 1 in 50 school-aged children may have the disorder, up from 1 in 88 last year.

Feld said though many of the increased cases may be due to better diagnostic tools, the number is increasing so rapidly that she fears there may be other causes to blame. About seven to eight years ago, about 1 in 166 people had an ASD, she said.

"That prevalence increase didn't come from better diagnosis alone," Feld said.

Since what causes autism is still unknown, Feld believes that we need to know more about the environmental and genetic factors that may influence the development of a child. Improving diagnostic methods and treatment may also increase a positive outcome for individuals with ASD.

"We need a national strategy for autism," she explained. "We also have to invest. For now, we need support and services across the board. There are thousands of family across the autism spectrum that need help today."

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