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SPARK aims to better understand autism

Autism treatment is not a one-size-fits-all proposition – just as autism encompasses a spectrum, treatments must as well.

That’s the motivation behind SPARK (Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge), which in South Carolina is at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. The study’s goal to better understand autism and its causes. Participation is free and information is kept private. Genetic information is collected via saliva in a kit that is sent to participants, and it can even be collected via a sponge if children are unable to spit into a collection tube. There are 31 partners in the study from across the country, including MUSC. 

“Most experts agree that there’s not one autism spectrum disorder, but there’s probably lots of autisms out there, and there’s probably lots of pathways that lead to autism,” Laura Carpenter, Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry in the Division of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina, said. “At this point, we’re trying to deliver treatments that are all the same to everybody with autism spectrum disorders, and it’s usually multiple disorders and multiple pathways to get there, then it’s not surprising that our treatments don’t work well for everybody. The idea here is to try to figure out all the different pathways to autism. Some might be genetic and there might be other pathways as well.”

Once the different pathways to autism are better understood, treatments can be tailored to each person in a more personalized approach. 

SPARK is in its fifth year. Anyone, including adults, with a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder can participate. 

Learn more at

April is Autism Awareness Month. Carpenter said autism can be accurately diagnosed in children as young as 15 months. If you have concerns about your child’s development, start by talking to your pediatrician right away. 

Most importantly, trust your instincts.

“What we find in the research is usually the parents are reporting concerns early on and it’s the pediatricians reassuring them that nothing is wrong,” Carpenter said. “The people around you are often very motivated to reassure you because they want you to feel better. (Parents) are usually pretty accurate in those concerns, but they don’t always get heard. If you don’t get heard in the first place that you go to, try again.”

Parents can access BabyNet, South Carolina’s early intervention system, without the requirement of a formal diagnosis or referral. For details, visit