Some of the world’s most cutting-edge autism research is expected to happen right here in Loudoun County starting this fall.
Construction will soon be underway at George Washington University’s Virginia Science & Technology Campus in Ashburn to make room for its Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute. The university is investing more than $5 million into the institute, which promises to work toward answering some of the complex questions surrounding what causes autism and how to treat it.
Kevin Pelphrey, a global leader in autism research, has taken the helm as director of the institute. For more than a decade, his research focused on how the brain works, specifically deficits of social functions. But his work changed slightly when his 3-year-old daughter was diagnosed with autism. He’s since focused his efforts on research that could specifically help the one in 68 children in the United States diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
“Before, I was intellectually interested in helping people, but I never imagined that I could see treatments that will benefit my child in my lifetime,” Pelphrey said. “It does give me drive.”
Pelphrey was hired by GW a year ago after working in the Yale Child Study Center and a professor of psychology at Yale University. He is the founding director of the Center for Translational Developmental Neuroscience and the Neurogenetics Network of the Autism Centers of Excellence Program.
Now, considered a leading autism researcher, Pelphrey expects ground-breaking progress in unfolding the mysteries of autism out of the future Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute in Ashburn, which expected to open this fall.
Much of the institute’s work will focus on expanding the body of research on autism in girls, developing interventions for adolescents and adults with autism and helping them transition to adulthood. Those areas traditionally have been understudied, Pelphrey said.
He and his staff will also dig into why certain treatments work and why others don’t, in an effort to develop more successful treatments.
“We envision that we will study and provide interventions and assessments for people starting in infancy all the way to adulthood—and aging adults with autism, which is an area that has been completely unstudied,” he said.
There is much to be learned about what causes autism and how it’s treated. When asked what researchers believe causes autism, Pelphrey said, at this point, they consider it a complex disorder caused by an unknown combination of genetics and outside environmental factors.
“There’s more work to be done,” he added.
The research element of the institute will be just a start. As the institute’s work gets underway, the goal is to establish a “college within a college” specifically designed for young people with autism. “We envision a college where people with autism can have the experience and challenge of going to college in a place that is kind of a safe place to fail,” he said, adding that he and his staff would provide the students with more support and structure than a traditional college.
The plan is for the college to provide a one- or two-year “pre-bachelor” program where students can earn credits but also get a primer for a traditional four-year college. Pelphrey is also already talking with companies in and near Loudoun that could partner with the college to provide work training opportunities for the students.
All of this, he said, could mean more people with autism and their families moving to the area. “I hope so,” he added. “I’m thinking we’ll probably be an international draw for families all over to fly in and have assessments.”
Deana Czaban, whose 18-year-old daughter has autism, said she’s optimistic that some of the brightest minds in autism research are choosing Loudoun as their home base to combine research and clinical care. When she and her husband first had concerns about their daughter Catherine more than 15 years ago, they faced a complicated web of specialists and a system of services that was challenging to navigate.
They enrolled her in Loudoun County Public Schools’ early childhood education program, and also took her to a private neurologist, psychologist, pediatrician, and speech therapist—all before she entered kindergarten. Autism education in the county has improved exponentially, she said, and the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute offers a glimmer of more progress to come.
“It was a different ball game then, 15 years ago,” she said. “There’s a lot coming to this area, and we’re hopeful for what’s to come.”
The Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute is in the final design stages. It will be housed on the second floor of Enterprise Hall, just off University Drive in Ashburn. Learn more at autism.gwu.edu/clinical-care.