PORTLAND — When 6-year-old William Mead of Portland was diagnosed with autism three years ago, his mother, Tory Shirley Mead, was told her son might have to be sedated and institutionalized.
But once she found doctors who would treat her son’s physical ailments, she said, his behavior has improved dramatically.
Physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital discovered that William had food allergies, had an inflamed and ulcerated lower intestine, and was missing key digestive enzymes.
But because of his medical treatment, William now can speak more than 1,000 words, can talk in short sentences and, with an aide, attends a Montessori school.
On Thursday, officials at Oregon Health & Science University and the Northwest Autism Foundation announced that OHSU joined groundbreaking national program to see how treating the medical problems of autistic children might alleviate symptoms of the disorder.
OHSU and four other medical centers across the nation are participating in a consortium called the Autism Treatment Network.
The network, headed by Harvard Medical School’s Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, will gather information from thousands of autistic children to develop ways of treating their physical ills. The network also includes Columbia University Medical School, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Washington.
The treatment network will build a computerized database to let medical specialists in a variety of fields and from different parts of the country compare notes on methods of treatment. Eventually, researchers will use the results to develop standard ways of treating autistic children.
Dr. Brian Rogers, director of OHSU’s Child Development and Rehabilitation Center, said such a multicenter approach has helped to improve treatments in children with cerebral palsy and mental retardation.
OHSU’s participation is significant because Oregon has one of the highest rates of autism in the United States, said Steve Edelson, director of the Center for the Study of Autism in Salem and president of the Autism Society of Oregon. Edelson said about one Oregonian in 1,000 has autism compared with a national average of one in 2,400.
The rate, in Oregon and nationally, is increasing each year, he said, but no one knows why. Some experts say the increase is because of greater awareness of the neurological disorder, he said. Others say the incidence is actually increasing.
“If we identify these medical conditions in a more standardized way, we’ll have a better idea of how they impact autism,” Rogers said.
OHSU’s participation in the network probably will open the door for more research grants. One of the institution’s major goals is to become a premier research facility.
“The research being funded for autism has skyrocketed in the last five to eight years,” Rogers said. “A lot of that has to do with the advocacy of parents of children with autism.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.