Plans for a new $15-million center in Orange County dedicated to autism treatment and research were announced this week by officials representing a range of private and public funders.

The Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders of Southern California is intended to be a national leader in the fight against autism, which affects one in 88 children nationally. Autism incidence in Orange County is by some estimates even higher at one in 63 children.

The new center will be operated by UC Irvine and expand the university’s autism clinic, For OC Kids Neurodevelopmental Center in Orange, which focuses on families with young children suffering from autism. The new center would expand the range of treatments and serve patients up to 22-years-old using an integrated team of experts.

The center, which does not yet have a location, will fund a drug research program as well.

“Today, nothing of this kind exists in Southern California,” said Bill Thompson, whose foundation, the William & Nancy Thompson Family Foundation, matched a $7-million challenge grant issued by the Children & Families Commission of Orange County to create the center.

The foundation made an additional grant of $800,000 to Chapman University for assisting families of autistic children in their interactions with school districts and for other uses. Additionally, Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) made a five-year commitment to fund specialty physicians and rehabilitation services.

Thompson and others announced the partnership of public and private sponsors behind the new center at a celebration on the UC Irvine campus Thursday. “It’s a Christmas miracle,” he quipped. “UCI, Chapman and CHOC in the same room, on the same page.”

Thompson said the center will operate in the current clinic until a new location is found. The search will begin next year, he said.

Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life and affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills.

It affects children in different ways. Some lose the ability to speak, while others “[do not] make eye contact or respond to their name but can name all the Beatles songs or draw a map of L.A.’s highway systems,” said Dr. Joseph Donnelly a UC Irvine pediatric neurologist who will lead the new center.

Donnelly said the center will offer a range of approaches in medicine as well as expertise in speech and language. Patients with Down syndrome and fragile X syndrome, both genetic conditions, will also receive attention at the new center, he said.

Meanwhile the center’s quest to find a drug therapy program will be headed by UC Irvine scientist Dr. J. Jay Gargus, who said that autism therapies could be targeted to the unique needs of patients, following the model of successful cancer therapies.

“This investment is going to launch us on a pathway to a cure,” Gargus said.


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