Our History

UCLA has been at the forefront of innovative research in Autism spectrum disorder for nearly half a century. In the 1950's, considerably before other major universities, UCLA had an active research program concerned with characterizing children with autism. The research and treatment conducted over the past 50 years at UCLA has set the standard for many of the research and treatment models currently used to understand autism and optimize the treatment of individuals with autism. 

In 2003, UCLA was named one of eight national centers in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded research initiative, Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment  (STAART). A new generation of autism researchers from diverse fields at UCLA, including genetics, brain imaging, pharmacotherapy and behavioral interventions became part of this initiative, thus developing the first interdisciplinary program grants. Dr. Dan Geschwind, with the strong support from Dr. Peter Whybrow, Director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, organized all research and clinical programs under one administrative structure, the Center for Autism Research and Treatment (CART). 

In 2007, the Center was awarded an NIH Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) grant - as one of six national ACE Centers and as the lead research site in one of five national ACE Network projects. Dr. Susan Bookheimer was named the Principal Investigator (PI) of the ACE Center grant and currently serves as co-Director of CART.  In 2012, NIH announced new ACE awards; notably, CART was the only ACE Center in the nation to get renewed funding to 2017 (ACE II) , and added a new ACE Network project.  In early 2013, the CART ACE Genetics Network grant was renewed to 2018. 

For the third consecutive time, UCLA is named an ACE Center due to our highly collaborative team’s efforts to make key strides in autism genetics, biology, early detection and experimental intervention.

Milestones

1960s

  • Dr. Ivar Lovaas established behavior modification as the first effective treatment for autism, finding that children made remarkable progress when they received intensive intervention based on applied behavior analysis (ABA).
  • Dr. Edward Ritvo and Dr. Edward Ornitz studied underlying neurophysiological mechanisms in autism (Ornitz, 1974), and were the first to recognize sensory processing abnormalities in autism, introducing the first EEG-based studies in autism (Ornitz et al, 1969).

1970s and 1980s

  • Dr. Marian Sigman, a UCLA developmental and clinical psychologist, created one of the first well-articulated developmental programs of research that uncovered many of the characteristics that are now considered core deficits of ASD (e.g. Sigman et al, 1984; 1986). These core deficit areas include social communication, joint attention, social motivation and social orienting; this remains a primary focus of the UCLA Center.

1990s

  • Dr. BJ Freeman establishes the Early Childhood Partial Hospitalization Program (ECPHP), a unique, effective day treatment program.
  • Establishment of the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE) by the Cure Autism Now Foundation and UCLA investigators. AGRE is the largest private, open-access repository of clinical and genetic information dedicated to help autism research.
  • Dr. Marian Sigman leads Collaborative Programs of Excellence in Autism (CPEA) and Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment (STAART) at UCLA. These initiatives facilitated building a new generation of autism researchers from diverse fields at UCLA, including genetics, brain imaging, pharmacotherapy, and behavioral intervention. 
  • Initiation of novel intervention approaches by Dr. Sigman and colleagues, based on basic research in child development.

2000-2005

  • Largest genome scan in autism performed by UCLA investigators and collaborators.
  • Re-organization of autism program, including clinical assessment to provide research and training focus.
  • Identification and rigorous confirmation of first chromosomal region harboring autism genes.
  • Identification of several genes potentially associated with autism.
  • Study of infant siblings of children with autism (high risk) to identify predictors of autism and prognostic information.
  • Unique studies of scientifically based interventions in the laboratory and in real world settings (school and play dates) ongoing.

2006-2008

  • UCLA is named an Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to support an interdisciplinary, multi-level, and fully translational research program with strong collaborations between laboratories.
  • Identification of the gene CNTNAP2 as a risk factor for ASD and related neurodevelopmental disorders.
  • Neuroimaging studies lead to the mirror neuron hypothesis of autism; now combining imaging and genetics to bridge genes, brain and behavior.
  • Several studies of autism treatment, both in early childhood and in school-aged children are also ongoing.
  • UCLA is the only academic institution in the world in which autism center investigators are leading two Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) grants from NIH.

2009- 2013

  • UCLA is renewed as an ACE Center, furthering research that integrates genetic and biological markers of autism with behavioral approaches.
  • UCLA receives three ACE Research Networks; these networks are designed to facilitate research collaboration at multiple universities. UCLA is the lead site for ACE Networks in the following areas: Interventions for Minimally Verbal Children and Genetic Diversity.   
  • Identification of regional brain differences and frontal cortical disconnection in carriers of the gene CNTNAP2 risk allele.
  • Dr. Connie Kasari is cited as Autism Speaks “2010 Top Ten Autism Research Achievements” for her JASPER intervention, specifically focused on joint attention and play engagement.
  • Peer-mediated interventions at school significantly improve peer-related social engagement and connections over child assisted (no peer) interventions only.
  • Identification of warning signs of autism in 12-month-old siblings of children with autism, including atypical interest in faces, reduced frequency of joint attention and requesting behaviors, and reduced responsiveness to social cues.
  • UCLA receives NIMH P30 Grant and recruits Dr. Shafali Spurling Jeste (pediatric neurologist who trained at Harvard) to join CART faculty and create an Electrophysiology Core laboratory to expand autism research to study infants and young, minimally verbal children.
  • DSM-5 is released in 2013 and condenses several sub-diagnoses under the single umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ASD is defined as having impaired social communication ability and the presence of restricted and/or repetitive behaviors. 
  • Dr. Amanda Gulsrud is named Clinical Director of the Child and Adult Neurodevelopmental (CAN) Clinic.

2014-2017

  • In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 1 in 68 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with ASD. 
  • UCLA becomes part of the Autism Biomarkers Consortium for Clinical Trials, in effort to identify reliable and objective measures of social impairment. 
  • UCLA CAN REACH Program is created, with support from the Kaplan & Rothstein Fund, to improve the translation of evidence-based treatments from the university to the community by offering training workshops and educational lectures to community providers and families. 
  • For the third consecutive time, UCLA is named an ACE Center due to our highly collaborative team’s efforts to make key strides in autism genetics, biology, early detection and experimental intervention.