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Autism Acceptance Month: Inside look at the world’s largest ongoing study for autism


It’s Autism Acceptance Month. Researchers are finding greater awareness and advanced diagnostic capabilities driving an increase in the number of children diagnosed with the condition.

12-year-old Jackson Stepanian was diagnosed with autism before his 3rd birthday. His mother Cara says starting therapies early changed his life.

"There was progress right away with language, with interactions. He made leaps and bounds. And every year since, he's a different boy," Cara Stepanian said.

The Stepanian family is taking part in "Spark"- the world's largest autism study. It includes more than 100,000 autistic individuals, 200,000 family members, and nearly 30 academic and research hospitals.

"We just want everyone to be the best version of themselves," said Dr. Wendy Chung, principal investigator for Spark.

Dr. Chung is working to identify the causes of autism and find more effective therapies. The community's match service also connects patients and researchers. "We have huge gaps in our knowledge and understanding, but there are amazing opportunities that are coming forward. If we work together, if we compare our experiences, we're really helping each other out," Dr. Chung said.

Jackson is in a mainstream 6th grade class with additional resources. "Classes that are meeting him at his academic level, advanced math and science, but also being able to support his social and emotional needs," Cara Stepanian said.

In a poem he wrote, Jackson told classmates about his struggles. "Autism makes some things very hard for me. Sometimes it is hard to be different from the others, sometimes it is awesome to be different from the others," he said.

His family is committed to the research. "That's the only way that we're going to move from not just awareness but to acceptance. Our goal as a family is to say that Jackson's brain is different, and that doesn't make him any less. That is just who he is," Cara Stepanian said.

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