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Autism Research in Israel

In our surveys of the major studies and research efforts being conducted, we tend to look primarily at those efforts being held in the U.S. and in some European countries, primarily the UK. This has been for the very obvious reason that the rate of diagnosis in the highest in these countries and both governments have invested a substantial amount of money at the national, state, and university level to the study of autism.

However, Israel is looking to become a major player in the ongoing discussion around autism research as their two top institutions—the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Hadassah Medical Center—are setting forth a groundbreaking interdisciplinary collaboration to further the study and treatment of the condition.

While there have been previous attempts at collaborations between basic researchers and clinicians of autism spectrum disorder, this joint autism research center is one of the first efforts to institutionalize the collaboration. While there is no set global figure for the rate of autism diagnoses, it is clear that diagnoses are on the rise in the country. However, efforts to homogenize this information are difficult because “Figures differ between countries because different countries count it in different ways,” say Professor Cory Shulman Brody of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Paul Baerwald School of Social Work & Social Welfare.’’

Just as the diagnosis rates and criteria for diagnosis differ between countries, so do the specific definitions of autism. “Some people will emphasize this aspect or that aspect. But, generally, it is a phenomenological syndrome based on the absence or presence of certain characteristics,” says Shulman Brody.

Where Brody and his team agree with U.S. clinicians is that the spectrum starts with mild forms of social discomfort and ranges upwards to severe developmental disorders with the condition being able to be diagnosed from infancy in some situations. In addition, just like in the U.S., men are four times more like than women to be diagnosed with autism.

Researchers in Israel are trying to make better sense of the rise of autism diagnoses and determine whether this is a fact or fad. “A lot more children are getting diagnosed with autism than used to be,” says Shulman Brody. “But I will say that a lot more kids are getting diagnosed with HDD and ADHD too. Neurodevelopmental issues are being checked more because there’s more awareness in the community, and there’s more acceptance that there’s no stigma in diagnosis,” she adds.

In addition, diagnoses of autism have become broader with people who might not have been viewed as being with autism in the 1970s now being considered as such, due to the better diagnostic instruments we have at our disposal.

Another area where Shulman Brody and her team agree with their U.S. counterparts is the fact that there is unlikely one single answer behind the cause of autism. That in and of itself underscores the crying need for the collaborative center, which will uniquely match basic research with clinical work and social work as well, the institutions explain. The hope is that the collaboration will create additive value – “The more we share, the more we know,” says Shulman Brody. “No single discipline owns autism.”