Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Study of Social, Environmental Factors in Autism Subject of High-Profile NIH Grant

Among the series of National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants made to 41 "exceptionally innovative" scientists this week was one to Peter Bearman, a Columbia University sociologist known for his research into social network dynamics who plans to study the role of social and environmental factors in autism.

Bearman is a recipient of a five-year, $2.5 million Pioneer Award from the NIH announced Sept. 18. You can read a press release on all the award recipients here.

Bearman's past research is a fascinating, diverse collection of subjects that, on the surface, appear to have little to do with autism and more to do with adolescent sexual health, Italian politics and how people win elite jobs. Take this passage from his bio provided by the NIH (see the website here):

Peter Bearman, Ph.D., is the Jonathan Cole Professor of Social Science at Columbia University. He also directs the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy and co-directs the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars Program at the university. Bearman received a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University in 1985. His work centers on understanding how social network dynamics shape diverse adolescent health outcomes. Bearman co-designed the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and has studied the structure of sexual networks and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, peer influence and sexual behavior, friendship structure and suicidality, and the determinants of school achievement. His work on sexual networks has been featured in popular magazines, including Time, Harper’s, and Discover.

Bearman's faculty profile at Columbia also notes:

His current research in historical sociology focuses on developing models to case historical event sequences; temporality in historical accounts; recruitment to elite positions, and the structure of global trade networks, 1600-1831. In the area of social networks, his current work focuses on the structure of Italian politics (1986-2002).

So why is this social scientist with wide-ranging interests going to focus on autism? A recent article in The New York Times explains that Bearman and his research colleagues want to delve into the rising tide of autism spectrum disorder diagnoses, and how social networks factor into that rise. Here's an excerpt from the August 5 "Week in Review" article "You, Your Friends, Your Friends of Friends" (the article delved into why researchers were finding that obesity appeared to be contagious):

Now Dr. Bearman and his colleagues are studying autism. The number of autistic children has increased rapidly in recent years, but it is not clear how much resulted from increased diagnosis and how much from an increase in the actual disease.

Dr. Bearman is studying how diagnoses of autism spread. When a child is diagnosed, friends of that child's parents may wonder whether their child has autism as well, and have their child evaluated. Demand for autism evaluations would increase, and doctors and schools would become more sensitive to the disorder and more likely to suspect it. Schools would then provide services for the autistic children in the community, attracting families from other areas where autism was less common and where schools were not as prepared to help.

"There is an enormously important dynamic that draws people into a diagnostic maelstrom," Dr. Bearman says. "Autism is real, but the epidemic very likely has a very important social network component."

No doubt that social network component involves us, parents and families of people diagnosed with autism. It will be interesting to follow what Bearman comes to understand.

Also see:

Anthropologist Casts Light on Autism Views Around the World

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