Charity Spotlight: The Marcus Autism Center

The Marcus Autism Center was founded in 1991 as the Marcus Developmental Resource Center. With more than 6,000 patients treated annually, the center is the largest clinical care provider in the nation for children with autism and one of only three Autism Centers of Excellence in the nation. The Marcus Autism Center now falls under the umbrella of the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA).

One of the most primary and critical areas of research is that of early detection. The earlier the child is diagnosed, the earlier treatment can begin. This is important, as autism affects one in 88 children and one in 65 boys.

To this end, the Center recruited Ami Klin to assume the directorship of the center. He brought his team of engineers, analysts, and developers from Yale to continue development of a program to track eye movements, since autistic children focus on different things than non-autistic children. By measuring where a child’s eyes are looking, the program can help diagnose autism much earlier than other methods.

Using clips of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, the team was able to determine that non-autistic people watching the movie, particular in dramatic scenes, focus on the eyes and pick up a general image via peripheral vision. In contrast, autistic children tend to focus on multiple individual areas, almost as if they only see chunks of the world. By being able to track this difference, specialists are able to focus on children who may have autism so they can start providing treatment years earlier than previously.

The Center is working with the National Health Institute (NIH) and the Federal Drug Agency (FDA) to get this technique licensed as a registered medical device. Such devices in doctors offices would allow general practitioners and family doctors to make an accurate diagnosis of autism and refer these children to specialists.

One of the biggest issues facing autistic children and their families is a lack of understanding. For example, a parent may be asked if their child likes to play. Of course the child likes to play! But how the child plays is often different from how nonautistic children play. A nonautistic child may play with a variety of toys and games, while an autistic child may only play with a couple toys and in particular ways. The question moves from being purely quantitative to incorporating quantitative aspects, such as how does your child like to play? What does your child like to play?

The Center is also focused on engaging the community at all levels, from parents to family doctors. This would significantly broaden the base on which children could be both diagnosed and treated.

Another program under development is an initiative with Georgia Tech to develop a portal for parents to upload videos of their interactions with their children. They are also working on evaluating tablet software that would allow parents to more easily pick useful apps for autism and for specific subcategories. This would help to weed out charlatans who prey on the parental desire for a fix or cure for their children.

The Center recognizes that every family’s journey is different, and they work tirelessly to ensure that therapy is tailored to the particular needs of the patient. Unfortunately, this costs a lot of money. Charity events, philanthropy, and grants help fund their goals, but they need the monetary assistance Dragon Con can provide.

Please be sure to visit charity events throughout the weekend to help raise funds for this important center and their wonderful work. The four charity events are staggered over Saturday and Sunday so everyone can make it to each event. You can find more information on the charity when-and-where’s here.

Our thanks to Andrea Welna, Carrie Edwards, Jeanne Walters, and Cheryl Rhodes for their time and information!

Author of the article

After a lifetime of science fiction and fantasy influences, the last twenty of which have been spent in IT, Geoff Termorshuizen is applying for his Ph.D. in Strategic Security after finishing a B.A in Political Science and M.Sc.'s in Cyber Security and MIS. He currently works as a technical consultant for ACI Worldwide, supporting security and financial payment systems. You can find him at Con either at the the DailyDragon room, or via the EFF track where he has presented panels on digital forensics, privacy, cyberwar, surveillance and technology related politics.