Autism Research

Autism Research

This section on autism research is designed to help you better understand autism research history, what is known today, and why the SPARK project was launched. We hope this information will help you decide if participation in SPARK is right for you and your family.


The study of autism originated in the 1940s with the work of Dr. Leo Kanner in the United States and Dr. Hans Asperger in Austria. At that time, and in the decades that followed, it was suspected that autism might be caused by “poor parenting,” which led to stigma associated with the disorder. However, thanks to years of focused research and scientific advances, autism is now known to be a neurodevelopmental disorder, and it is known that some of its symptoms can be treated.

There are still many theories about what causes autism, but most researchers now believe that both genetic and environmental factors play roles. Learn more about Genetic Analysis here.

Today, the central goals of autism research are to learn more about what causes autism and to develop treatments that can improve the quality of life for people living with the condition. As science continues to shed light on the molecular workings that underpin autism, we will see still more profound progress in our understanding of this condition and, we hope, treatments for those affected.


The prevalence of autism has increased significantly over the past two decades. While this increase may be largely attributed to broader diagnostic criteria and an increase in overall awareness of autism, it nonetheless means there has never been a greater need to gain a better understanding of this condition that affects so many.

While considerable advances have occurred in autism research, there is still much we don’t know. For example, recent research has shown that likely hundreds of genes play a role in autism, but not a lot is known about which environmental factors contribute to the development of the condition. View the SPARK gene list with detailed gene guides or the SPARK gene list you can download. While many different types of treatments are available (e.g., behavioral therapy and medications for some behaviors), there are no approved medications to treat core symptoms of autism.

One of SPARK’s key goals is to enable a new level of research that was not possible previously, by dramatically increasing the number of people available to participate in autism research.

SPARK will enable advances in two major ways. Having genetic samples from 50,000 families for scientists to analyze will enable far deeper insight into the genetic changes that contribute to autism. SPARK families will be available to receive invitations from researchers to participate in other studies, enabling research of all types to get off the ground more quickly.

photo of a computer, books, and a legal padSPARK RESEARCH PUBLICATIONS

Researchers use SPARK data and SPARK Research Match to investigate a wide variety of topics—from genetic changes to school services—and they publish their findings in scientific journals. Thanks to your participation, SPARK has more than 130 research publications. Learn more…


SPARK Research Match is a service that matches qualified members of the SPARK community to autism research studies. It provides the opportunity to participate in studies led by researchers throughout the U.S. and internationally. A wide variety of researchers use Research Match to find potential participants who are willing to volunteer for their online or in person studies. Participants get the chance to be represented in research and hear about studies that are appropriate for them. And, we can all learn more about autism. Learn more…

Photo of a Simons Searchlight family meetingSIMONS SEARCHLIGHT

People who get certain genetic findings from SPARK will receive an invitation to join Simons Searchlight as the next step in their research journey. Simons Searchlight is a research program that works with families and researchers around the world to speed up genetics research on autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders. Learn more…