DURHAM — When Geri Dawson was in graduate school for clinical psychology, her first patient had a perplexing disorder that kept him from learning how to relate to others the way most children do.
It was 1979, and autism was so rare that her team flew in specialists from across the country. Dawson was so intrigued by the utter lack of knowledge about autism – and heartbroken by the impact it had on her patient’s family – that she embarked on a career devoted to studying and treating the disorder.
“We had absolutely no idea how a child could come into this world and not be able to form social relationships with other people,” she says. “We also had very little to offer this family.”
Dawson, 62, became one of the country’s foremost autism researchers during a three-decade span in which the disorder grew more frequently diagnosed and better understood. As recently as 1994, only an estimated one in 1,500 U.S. children had been diagnosed with what is now called autism spectrum disorder. Now, one in 88 children has it, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Early in Dawson’s career, she pioneered detection and intervention methods for young children that are now standard procedures. One of her more recent projects, named one of the top 10 medical advances of 2012 by Time magazine, showed that these kinds of therapy can make detectable changes in a child’s brain.
She spent the past five years as the first chief science officer at Autism Speaks, a national nonprofit devoted to autism research and advocacy, where she oversaw a $25 million research program. As of August, she is leading the development of Duke University’s new Center for Autism Diagnosis and Treatment, which will draw experts from various fields to treat autism and related conditions.
Her addition to the faculty will help propel Duke into prominence in autism research, says Michael Platt, director of Duke’s Institute for Brain Sciences, by bringing together researchers from disciplines whose work touches on autism.
“She’s exactly the kind of leading light that we sorely needed and that will really help to catalyze important work in this area,” says Platt, who helped hire Dawson. “I see Duke being a real hive for bringing together people who are doing research that is relevant to autism.”
Drawn to children
Dawson grew up in Washington state in a family of scientists and engineers. Her father was a physicist at a nuclear power plant.
She jokes that her two possible career paths were scientist and backup singer: “As a teenager I had two posters: Einstein and Jimi Hendrix.”
She sided with Einstein and found herself drawn to research on children with developmental problems. When she decided to study autism, she thought she had found a comfortable but obscure niche.
“I thought that I would be an expert in a very rare condition and see a small group of children,” she says.
Instead, Dawson has seen research into autism explode along with the number of cases. She spent the bulk of her career at the University of Washington, where she directed a team of 100 researchers from different disciplines in addition to conducting her own research and seeing patients.
When Dawson’s career began, autism was usually not diagnosed until a child was 3 or 4, triggered by a lag in speech development. One of Dawson’s first studies compared home videos of autistic and typical children, identifying signs of autism in children as young as 12 months.
Now she’s working on identifying risk markers found in the brain of infants as young as 6 months.
Over the years, the research of Dawson and others revealed that behavioral therapy early in a child’s life can make the disorder significantly less severe as children age.
The treatments she helped develop, known as the Early Start Denver Model, are precise and methodical, plowing through a list of thousands of social and communication skills, such as responding to a person’s voice, while building a relationship with the child through play.
“Many children go from having almost no language and cognitive impairment to being in a general classroom,” she says.
Her role at Autism Speaks required her to give up treating patients, but afforded her a wider vantage point on autism research and advocacy worldwide. The job was based at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she had her first job as an assistant professor, but involved frequent travel to the group’s headquarters in New York and elsewhere.
She continued her research during her time there, but also became involved in policy issues such as insurance reform and training pediatricians. She testified in front of Congress and served on a United Nations panel devoted to autism.
“I felt like it was a really unique opportunity to have an impact on a broader scale,” she says, “and to try to translate a lot of the work that we had already done in the lab into policy and have an impact on a national level.”
At Duke, she hopes to continue that effort. Plans include a training center for Denver Model methods, partnerships between Duke’s hospital and researchers, and a variety of research collaborations.
So far, she’s working with specialists in stem cell therapy and brain stimulation, among others. One of her goals is to promote treatments for the many patients who don’t respond well to early intervention.
She also is seeking to create more comprehensive services for the many ailments – from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to gastrointestinal problems – that often affect people with autism spectrum disorder.
Dawson says she is glad to be seeing patients again. She keeps in touch with many former patients who are artists, computer scientists, mathematicians – and even an autism researcher. On one wall of her office hangs a delicate watercolor painting of a purple cat, created by a former patient who does not speak.
“People with autism have incredible talents and so much to offer, it’s great to see the way people have used those talents,” she says.
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