The reasons why autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are almost five times more common among boys than among girls may soon be revealed, thanks to a five-year, $15 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant awarded to the School of Medicine’s Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) research program.

Led by principal investigator Kevin Pelphrey, Ph.D., the Harris Family Associate Professor in the Child Study Center (CSC), the Yale ACE award is part of a $100 million National Institutes of Health program that will provide funding to nine institutions to investigate the causes of and treatments for ASDs.

“It is my hope that this award will invigorate research in autism at Yale and allow us to maintain our outstanding history of cutting-edge work in this field,” says Pelphrey, also associate professor of psychology and director of the Center for Developmental Neuroimaging.

Pelphrey and a collaborative team of researchers from Yale, UCLA, Harvard, and the University of Washington will investigate the poorly understood nature of autism in females. Other labs at the School of Medicine that will participate include that of James C. McPartland, Ph.D., assistant professor in the CSC and assistant professor of psychology, and director of the Yale Developmental Disabilities Clinic.

The team will study an unprecedented number of girls with ASDs and will focus on genes, brain function, and behavior throughout childhood and adolescence. ASDs are complex developmental disorders that affect how a person behaves, interacts with others, communicates, and learns. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ASDs affect approximately 1 in 88 children in the United States.

NIH created the ACE Program in 2007 to launch an intense and coordinated research program that supports large collaborative efforts to advance broad research goals. The program expanded this year to examine such issues as children and adults who have limited or no speech, possible links between ASDs and other genetic syndromes, potential treatments, and the possible reasons why ASDs are more common among boys than girls, according to Alice Kau, Ph.D., of the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Branch at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), one of five institutes funding the ACE program.

Other supporters of the ACE program include the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.