Cambridge University to lead UK’s largest autism study

Cambridge researchers will on Tuesday launch the UK’s largest ever study into autism, aiming to achieve better levels of support and understanding for autistic people.

The Spectrum 10K project will recruit 10,000 autistic people from across the UK in order to boost understanding of how biological and environmental factors impact on them, organisers say.

The project will be carried out by Cambridge’s world-leading Autism Research Centre (ARC) in conjunction with the nearby genetics research body the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

Researchers say the study will examine the different needs of people with autism, many of whom have additional conditions including epilepsy, anxiety and depression.

With some 700,000 autistic people in the UK, the study’s organisers say they will attempt to better understand what causes the broad levels of diversity within the autism spectrum, with the aim of identifying what support works best for each individual.

“There is an urgent need to better understand the wellbeing of autistic individuals. Spectrum 10K hopes to answer questions such as why some autistic people have epilepsy or poor mental health outcomes and others do not,” Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the ARC who is leading the study, said in a statement.

People of all ages, genders, ethnicities and intellectual capacities will take part in the study, in which eligible participants will be asked to complete an online questionnaire and provide a DNA saliva sample by post.

Autistic participants can also invite biological relatives – autistic or otherwise – to participate. Information collected from the questionnaire and DNA saliva sample, and information from health records will be used to increase knowledge and understanding of wellbeing in autism.

Dr James Cusack, CEO of the autism research charity Autistica and an autistic person, said: “We are delighted to support Spectrum 10K. This project enables autistic people to participate in and shape autism research to build a future where support is tailored to every individual’s needs.”

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TV personality Paddy McGuinness, father of three autistic children, is backing the project (Keiron McCarron/PA)

The Spectrum 10K team says it views autism as an example of neurodiversity, and is opposed to eugenics, searching for a cure for autism, or preventing or eradicating the condition.

Instead, the research aims to identify types of support and treatment which alleviate unwanted symptoms and co-occurring conditions that cause autistic people distress, the group said.

The Spectrum 10K team collaborates with an Advisory Panel consisting of autistic individuals, parents of autistic children, clinicians, and autism charity representatives to ensure Spectrum 10K is designed to best serve the autistic community. A total of 27 specialist NHS sites around the UK are also helping with recruitment for Spectrum 10K.

The project is being supported by actor, comedian and TV presenter Paddy McGuinness, who has three autistic children.

“As a parent of three autistic children, I am really excited to support Spectrum 10K. This research is important to help us understand what makes every autistic person different, and how best to support them,” he said.

Chris Packham, naturalist and TV presenter who is also autistic, said: “I’m honoured to be an ambassador of Spectrum 10K because I believe in the value of science to inform the support services that autistic kids and adults will need.”