Autism Speaks Releases Strategic Plan for Autism Research


May 7, 2009


pdf File autism speaks overview and summary.pdf (474KB) [download]

pdf File autism speaks strategic plan.pdf (1,632KB) [download]

NEW YORK, N.Y. (May 7, 2009) - Autism Speaks, the world's largest autism science and advocacy organization, today released its strategic plan for autism research, which outlines its goals and priorities for research funding over the next three years. Autism Speaks, to date, has committed over $130 million in autism science. The Autism Speaks Strategic Plan, developed in consultation with its Scientific Advisory Committee and outside advisors, is focused on innovation and an emphasis on translating discoveries into diagnosis and treatments for individuals living with autism today. Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., chief science officer of Autism Speaks, introduced the Strategic Plan today at the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR). Visit for comprehensive IMFAR coverage.

"At the core of this plan is a sense of urgency, standards for scientific excellence, involving families as partners, and recognition that persons with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are the "heart" of the organization's efforts," explained Dr. Dawson. The strategic plan details the types of research that will be prioritized in six areas: Etiology, Biology, Diagnosis, Treatment, Dissemination, and Bioinformatics as detailed in the executive summary and the complete plan document available at

The key strategic directions include the need for biomarkers that can index meaningful subtypes, point to underlying causes, and help determine which treatments will be helpful for which individuals. The plan seeks a better understanding of gene-environment interactions in the etiology of autism. The plan also seeks to translate genetic and other biological findings into clinically useful tools for risk assessment and treatment discovery. Research under the plan will seek to develop treatments that can be of immediate benefit for alleviating both core symptoms of autism and associated medical conditions and to disseminate treatments already shown to be effective into the broader community. Another key strategic direction is continued investment in large data repositories that can help scientists address the heterogeneity in ASD.

"We want to move as quickly as possible from basic discovery to dissemination of results into the real world. The Autism Speaks mission, which is to improve the future of all individuals with autism spectrum disorders and provide hope for families, guided our strategy. Our mission will not be fulfilled until treatments that are discovered are put into practice and become widely available," explained Dr. Dawson.

Development of the Strategic Plan was supported with consultations by the Gates Foundation's Fay Twersky, Director of Impact and Planning, and John Peabody, M.D., Ph.D., Professor, Global Health Science, at the University of California, San Francisco. The planning process began by carefully reviewing the outcomes of past funding by Autism Speaks, and predecessor organizations Cure Autism Now and the National Alliance for Autism Research, to determine what strategies had been most productive and effective. An external evaluation of Autism Speaks' past science funding efforts and outcomes was provided by the Washington Advisory Group and headed up by Purnell Choppin, M.D., past president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Dr. Dawson then convened a series of planning meetings of several working groups comprised of scientific experts, stakeholders, and staff who each discussed different areas of potential research focus. The final plan was evaluated and finalized by Autism Speaks' Scientific Advisory Committee.

The Strategic Plan features a significant emphasis on innovation. "One of the advantages of being a private organization is that Autism Speaks can take more risks to move science in novel directions," remarked Glenn Rall, Ph.D., a microbiologist and associate professor, University of Pennsylvania, and member of the Scientific Advisory Committee. As a result of the plan, later this year, Autism Speaks will be announcing a new grant mechanism that will focus on advancing leading-edge autism research. Autism Speaks intends for the strategic plan to become a living document that will be revised every year as the understanding of autism expands and evolves. "Our knowledge base is rapidly growing. We must remain nimble and quickly respond to new findings and opportunities as they arise," concluded Dr. Dawson. "We must continually ask where our knowledge is and where we want to be, and refine how our research activities will allow us to bridge that gap."