The Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) held its sixth annual meeting from September 28 – 30, bringing together some 150 SFARI-supported autism researchers in an effort to advance the understanding of autism, improve its diagnosis and better the experience of those on the autism spectrum.
Talks during the three-day meeting covered a wide array of topics, including clinical phenotyping of individuals with autism, neural circuits related to the disorder, the genetics of autism and developmental issues.
“The overall program of scientific speakers was amazing — it was the best meeting I’ve been to,” says Scott Murray of the University of Washington, who studies pupil size as a diagnostic tool for autism. “The convergence of different perspectives on autism — from genes to circuits to behavior — all representing the latest cutting-edge science, was unlike anything I’ve seen before.”
SFARI annual meetings, begun in 2009, have grown in scope as scientific advances have been made in the field. This year, for the first time, SFARI will host two ‘annual’ meetings in one year to include more SFARI-funded researchers in the proceedings. The additional meeting will allow not only SFARI Research and Pilot Grant awardees to attend, but also Explorer Grant awardees — who have received short-term support for high-risk experiments, with the hope that this support will lead to other forms of funding. There will also be more representatives from SFARI partner projects such as SFARI Gene and Autism BrainNet.
Researchers focusing on different aspects of the disorder learn from one another during presentations, but also at less formal gatherings such as breaks and meals. By bringing together excellent researchers working toward common goals, SFARI hopes to encourage not only collaboration, but also a robust sense of community among autism investigators.
“All the great science presented at the meetings energizes me to push my lab’s project forward,” says Elliott Sherr of the University of California, San Francisco. Among other projects, Sherr uses brain imaging of individuals with deletions or duplications of the chromosomal region 16p11.2 to better understand the basis of and potential treatments for autism.
One highlight of this year’s meeting took place during the event’s final dinner. Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation, and Paul Morris, a 27-year-old self-advocate with high-functioning autism, presented From Heartbreak to Hope: 50 Years of Autism Advocacy. Both speakers shared personal experiences and described hurdles of living with autism, while also outlining the tremendous progress made in the understanding and acceptance of autism in recent decades.
Singer’s personal experience with autism — her brother was diagnosed in the 1960s and her daughter in 2000 — shaped her personal and professional trajectory and shed light on the progress made since she first encountered the disorder. Morris, who struggled with and overcame obstacles associated with his own diagnosis, discussed his goal for the autism community: to encourage friendships and promote a greater understanding of the disorder.
“It was wonderful to see so many scientists learning from one another and building a community,” says Louis Reichardt, director of SFARI. “The hope is that SFARI meetings will move autism research forward through learning but also enable collaborations between these talented researchers. And in the end we want to improve therapeutics and make a difference for those living on the autism spectrum.”