IMFAR 2014: A Refreshing Refocusing

By Rachel Zamzow

The International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) in Atlanta, GA brought together 1,800 scientists, clinicians, sponsors and stakeholders for the purpose of exchanging ideas, fostering collaborations and ultimately examining the current state of autism research. The meeting also represented a refocusing within the field, as keynote speakers and presenters called the scientific community to adjust how major questions in autism research are approached.

One call for change involved embracing and addressing the inherent heterogeneity of autism. The notion that hundreds, likely thousands, of genetic changes and many environmental factors contribute to autism was reiterated throughout the meeting. In his keynote address, Declan Murphy of King’s College London emphasized the importance of stratifying participant populations by age to provide precision in exploring potential biomarkers for autism. During her talk on brain imaging, Dr. Adriana Di Martino from New York University noted symptom severity, co-occurring disorders, such as ADHD, and gender as additional factors to consider in addressing the heterogeneity of autism.

Presenters also discussed intervention as an area in need of refocusing. In his keynote, Murphy put up a blank slide to represent the current options of effective pharmacological treatment for core symptoms of autism. This dearth of available treatment options is a pressing concern in this field. Several presenters extended this idea to include individualized medicine as a goal for the future of autism research. In addition, Dr. John Sweeney of University of Texas Southwestern encouraged researchers to bridge the gap between clinical research and basic science to improve drug development and inform treatment options.

Another shift evident at IMFAR was increased emphasis on the voices of autism stakeholders, including autistic individuals themselves and their families.  For example, John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s, was a prominent presence on Twitter during the meeting, encouraging attendees to focus on the individual needs and viewpoints of individuals with autism, not just the ever-discussed 1 in 68 statistic. During a scientific panel on gender differences in autism, two women with autism posed important questions to the panel about identifying and treating autism in girls. Lastly, 2014 INSAR Advocate Award recipient Peter Bell implored researchers to spend time within the autism community, leaving the lab at least once a month to personally engage with individuals with autism.

IMFAR 2014 brought together leaders in the field of autism research and advocacy, allowing for the generation of new ideas and collaborations. But the true benefit of this meeting was the refreshing chance to stand back as a field, assess from where we’ve come and refocus on important issues for the future of autism research.

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