March 31, 2015


April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day when the international community will “Light It Up Blue” to bring recognition to autism as a rising global health concern. Texas Children’s encourages everyone to wear blue that day or post something blue to one of their personal social media pages to show their support for autism awareness.

Autism spectrum disorder is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States, affecting 1 out of every 68 children. It occurs more often among boys than girls. Children with autism often experience significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.

For more than a decade, Natanya Dugall searched for a diagnosis for her son that would explain his vision, speech and movement impairments. She knew something was wrong with Grayson from the moment he was born, but initial genetic testing turned up nothing.

When Grayson turned 13, Dugall received some unexpected news. A laboratory had identified chromosomal deletions on a specific gene in Grayson’s DNA which had been collected years earlier. After the initial find, Grayson participated in a study at the Autism Center at Texas Children’s that examined the effects of people who grew up with either chromosomal deletions or copies on this gene.

When the Dugall family made the 1,120-mile trek from their home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Houston in 2011, their quest for answers to Grayson’s puzzling condition was confirmed – he had autism.

“I cannot begin to express my gratitude to the research team from Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital for funding all of the testing and travel expenses,” Dugall said. “Grayson understands the probability that he can pass this to his children – knowledge that we struggle with but are so grateful to finally know.”

The Autism Center’s multidisciplinary team of specialists from developmental pediatrics, psychology, psychiatry, neurology and social work provide diagnostic evaluations and ongoing clinical care to 2,000 patients with autism each year. Researchers at the Autism Center participate in a wide range of research studies focused on autism spectrum disorders, collaborating with scientists from other renowned centers across the nation.

In conjunction with the groundbreaking work emerging from the The Autism Center, Dr. Ruth Ann Luna at Texas Children’s Microbiome Center focuses much of her research on the link between disturbances in the gut microbiome and gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms in children with autism. One of her biggest motivators is her 6-year-old son, Kellen, who has autism.

With the support of a $1.4 million, three-year-grant from Autism Speaks, Luna and her Baylor and Texas Children’s colleagues are embarking on a study to determine if a biological connection exists between autism and GI disorders.

“I was in awe when I found out we were awarded this funding to advance autism research,” Luna said. “The data gleaned from our research will benefit my son and other families who have children with autism, especially those children with limited verbal abilities.” Click here to read more about Luna’s autism study.

For more information about “Light It Up Blue, click here and to learn more aobut the Autism Center at Texas Children’s click here.

February 24, 2015


Have you ever wondered why life leads us down certain career paths? For Dr. Ruth Ann Luna, the answer is obvious – her immense curiosity and passion for research to improve the quality of life for sick children.

As director of medical metagenomics at Texas Children’s Microbiome Center, Luna focuses much of her research on the link between disturbances in the gut microbiome – bacterial communities in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract – and GI symptoms in children.

Her quest for answers goes far beyond her role as an astute scientist. One of her biggest motivators is her 6-year-old son, Kellen, who has autism accompanied by significant GI problems – a common complaint among children with autism spectrum disorders.

22515autisminside495“When Autism Speaks announced its GI and Neurobehavioral Processes grant almost a year ago, I recognized it as the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Luna, an assistant professor of pathology at Baylor College of Medicine. “I was in awe when I found out we were awarded this funding to advance autism research.”

With the support of a $1.4 million, three-year grant, Luna and her colleagues at Texas Children’s and Baylor will embark on a comprehensive, multi-center study to determine if a biological connection exists between autism and GI disorders.

“Previous research has shown that gastrointestinal problems are more common among individuals with autism and may worsen behavioral problems,” said Texas Children’s Pathologist-in-Chief Dr. James Versalovic, the Milton J. Finegold professor of pathology at Baylor and director of Texas Children’s Microbiome Center.

Co-led by Luna and Versalovic, scientists in the Microbiome Center will evaluate behavior, GI symptoms, the microbiome and the metabolome, all in the hopes of identifying biomarkers of abdominal pain, understanding the impact of the gut-brain-microbiome axis and determining metabolic disturbances in autism.

“There are inherent differences in the guts of children with autism,” Luna said. “By analyzing all of these factors, we hope to develop better ways to diagnose and treat gastrointestinal issues in children with autism.”

The autism study will enroll 375 children ages 4 through 12 at Texas Children’s, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

Children with autism – with and without GI symptoms – and their unaffected siblings, and children without autism, with and without GI symptoms, are currently being recruited for the study.

“The data gleaned from our research will benefit my son and other families who have children with autism, especially those children with limited verbal abilities” Luna said. “This amazing opportunity to positively impact lives is what makes my job extremely fulfilling.”

For more information or to enroll in the Microbiome Center’s autism and GI study, contact Luna at Ext. 4-1894 or

June 3, 2014


Some children with autism appear to be developing normally when they are very young. They babble or even talk, make eye contact with their parents and crawl and walk on schedule. Then suddenly, these skills seem to vanish.

Described as developmental regression, this loss of language, motor or social skills occurs more often in Black and Hispanic children compared to White children, according to a study led by Dr. Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, associate director of the Meyer Center for Developmental Pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital.

“Lost skills are very difficult to recover and unfortunately, there is no way to prevent developmental regression,” said Spinks-Franklin. “What we know is important is helping children with autism learn to communicate better, develop improved social skills, engage in more functioning behaviors, participate in an appropriate school curriculum that addresses their unique needs and learn to function as independently as each child can.”

Spinks-Franklin and her team analyzed data on 1,353 preschool children with autism enrolled in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network database between March 2008 and December 2011. The database includes demographic and medical information on each child enrolled at one of 17 locations across the United States and Canada. Information collected included whether parents reported that their child had lost skills.

Results showed that 27 percent of children experienced developmental regression according to their parents. Black children were twice as likely to have parent-reported regression compared to White children. Hispanic children were about 1.5 times more likely than White children to lose early skills according to their parents. This difference was apparent even when researchers controlled for primary caretaker’s education and the child’s insurance status.

“Each child with autism is a unique individual with their own strengths and challenges,” said Spinks-Franklin. “It is very important that all parents in all communities become aware of the early signs of autism – poor communication skills, impaired social skills and unusual behaviors and interests.”

According to Spinks-Franklin, the rates of Autism are the same among African American, Hispanic and White children. However, African American and Hispanic children are generally diagnosed with Autism at later ages than White children and have less access to much-needed educational, therapeutic and medical resources that are designed to help address the needs of children with Autism.

The study, which is an insightful exploration of racial disparities among children with Autism, is Spinks-Franklin’s latest step towards understanding how culture impacts child development. Her previous research experience includes studying the development of children in Senegal, West Africa, and studying the mental health impact of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on school-aged African American children in Houston, as well as exploring the racial identity development of school-aged African American and Latino children in the Houston area who participated in a reading intervention program.

“The earlier a child is diagnosed with Autism, the better chance they have to receive the help and interventions the child needs to function to the best of their ability,” said Spinks-Franklin. “One of my goals is to increase awareness of Autism in underserved communities in the Houston area in order for all children to have a better chance of obtaining the help they may need.”

If a parent reports that a child has lost a developmental skill, health care providers should address the parent’s concerns with appropriate screening and referrals. Texas Children’s staff should be aware that there are many community-based and school-based services available to support and help children who have Autism and their families.

Spinks-Franklin presented the study, titled “Racial Differences in Developmental Regression in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders” on May 6 at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

April 29, 2014

Texas Children’s Autism Center promoted awareness of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at a recent bridge event. They provided information about ASD, early intervention services and community resources and were available to answer questions. Also several other non-profit organizations were present to promote awareness and available local services. Stickers for the May 2 Autism Awareness Blue Jeans Day were available for purchase. Contact Stacey Broton at Ext. 4-8385 for stickers.

Event photos: