A high school community service requirement launched Craig Erickson on his path as a physician and autism researcher. As a teenager in Cincinnati in the 1990s, Erickson signed up to volunteer at an organization called Stepping Stones, which offers summer camps and other programs to people with disabilities. Erickson chose Stepping Stones for practical reasons: “They had a bus that picked up volunteers near my house,” he says.
But the experience would shape much of the rest of his life.
When he started volunteering at the camp, Erickson knew nothing at all about autism. That quickly changed. He did everything from taking campers swimming to changing diapers, sometimes bearing the brunt of angry outbursts. He once crawled under a bathroom stall at a baseball stadium to extract a child who had locked himself inside.
“It was intense stuff for being in high school, but at the same time, I couldn’t get over the fact that these deficits exist in the world,” he says. “It was in my face every day that these folks need help. I wanted to help, and I found the work incredibly rewarding.”
Erickson spent every summer until he went to medical school working at day camps for people with developmental disabilities, eventually becoming a camp director at Stepping Stones. While Erickson always knew he wanted to be a doctor, those summers focused his career path: he would become an autism doctor. “When I first started medical school, I didn’t know what that meant,” he says. “But I went into medicine knowing this is the population I wanted to serve.”
Erickson was in medical school when the Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug to treat autism, risperidone. The medicine doesn’t address the core deficits of the condition — social communication and repetitive behavior. But it can help with aggression and self-injury. Erickson had frequently dealt with these issues with his campers and knew full well how challenging such problems can be. “The idea that medicines were coming out to help alleviate these concerns was inspiring,” he says. He decided to become a child and adolescent psychiatrist with the goal of developing new treatments for autism.
Today, Erickson is the director of research at the Kelly O’Leary Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, in Ohio. His team has helped develop and test a number of potential treatments for autism and related conditions, such as fragile X syndrome.
One of the biggest challenges in finding new treatments for autism results from the condition’s diversity. People with autism can have a wide array of symptoms that span a spectrum of severity. That means that people with the condition can respond to drugs very differently — what works for one person might not work for another. Also challenging is the fact that assessment of the core deficits of autism, such as social communication, can be subjective. That can make it difficult to evaluate whether someone has truly improved.
Erickson’s goal is to find new ways to measure whether a drug is working. One approach is to record electrical activity from the brain before and after treatment, using a noninvasive technique called electroencephalography, or EEG. His team also measures whether the drug increases how much people look at eyes compared with other parts of the face. These measures might also help predict who is most likely to respond to a specific drug.
Erickson and collaborators have for several years been testing whether acamprosate, a drug approved to treat alcoholism, can help people with autism. Early results show that the drug enhances communication and social behavior. “We want to see how it bears out in larger groups of people,” Erickson says. “It’s an interesting medicine with a good safety profile but has not been studied specifically in autism.”
Genetic testing might also help pinpoint who will best respond to a drug. SPARK will likely benefit that project. “SPARK gives us the ability to get state-of-the-art genetic analysis not otherwise available to families,” he says.
Today, Erickson is still close to the organization that introduced him to autism. He sits on Stepping Stones’ program committee. And as a physician, he treats some of his former campers. For Father’s Day, Erickson went to a Cincinnati Reds game with his father and his children and ran into someone who attended the camp 20 years ago. Erickson says, “An old camper and his family came up to me and said, ‘Craig, we remembered you’re a Reds fan.’”