ASDs are complex neurodevelopmental disorders are characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, or stereotyped patterns of behavior. The most recent ASD prevalence estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are 11.3 children per 1,000 children, or 1 child in 88 children (CDC, 2012).
During the last decade-and-a-half, the NICHD has supported a considerable number of research projects related to ASDs. The NICHD’s past efforts included the Collaborative Programs of Excellence in Autism (CPEA) Network on the Neurobiology and Genetics of Autism, which was co-funded by the NIDCD, and the Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment (STAART) Network, with co-funding from the NIMH, NINDS, NIDCD, and the NIEHS. To maximize coordination and cohesion of NIH-sponsored efforts in autism research, the NIH consolidated the CPEA and STAART Networks into the trans-NIH Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) in 2007 to avoid duplication, allow pooling and most efficient use of resources, and involve a larger number of investigators in autism research.
The NICHD is one of the five NIH Institutes sponsoring the ACE Program, which supports studies on a range of autism topics, including early identification and intervention in infants at risk for ASDs, early brain abnormalities and functioning, potential environmental risk factors and biomarkers, intensive early behavioral intervention, long-term effects of early intervention, multidisciplinary studies of insistence on sameness, and trials of new medication treatments. The ACE Program includes ACE research centers, which foster collaboration between teams of specialists who share the same facility to address a particular research problem in depth, and ACE research networks, which consist of researchers at many facilities in locations throughout the country, all of whom work together on a single research question.
The NIH funded six ACE research centers (via the P50 mechanism) and five ACE research networks (through the R01 mechanism) in its first competition. Recently, the ACE program was recompeted, and the new centers and networks will continue to address important issues in ASD research.