On the Edge: A Big Give to Back Novel Approaches in Autism Science

It’s estimated that 1 in 68 children in the U.S. has autism or an autism spectrum disorder. The disorders on the spectrum range broadly and with each condition comes its own set of cognitive, developmental, and behavioral challenges. It’s also not uncommon for those with autism to suffer from medical and mental health conditions such as anxiety, seizures, and gastrointestinal problems. Over recent years, the struggles and fears that parents confront regarding autism have received enormous attention, including in the hit TV show Parenthood

While there have been some advances in autism science over the past few years, significant research challenges remain—yet the number of private funders focused in this space is pretty limited, with the Simons Foundation the top leader, here, as we've often reported. (More on its work in a moment.)

Now, researchers focused on the frontiers of autism research just got some reinforcements from MIT alumni Hock Tan and Lisa Yang. The couple donated $20 million to MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research to establish a new center dedicated to autism spectrum disorder research. Broadly, the new center will support the study of the genetic, biological and neural bases for autism. More specifically, the Tan-Yang Center for Autism Research will focus on “four major lines of investigation: genetics, neural circuits, novel autism models, and the translation of basic research to the clinical setting.”

Hock Tan is the long-serving CEO of Broadcom, the tech company, where clearly he has done quite well. Yang is an advocate for people with disabilities and learning differences. The couple have two children with autism, and while this is the first time that their philanthropy has crossed our radar, the MIT gift isn't their first major move. In 2015, they gave Cornell University $10 million for a new center of autism and employment. At the time, Yang said, “We need to bring forth a paradigm shift in the corporate world that helps it integrate disability as a form of diversity." This statement reflects the hopes of a lot of parents with children on the autism spectrum—that their kids will find a path to engagement and self-reliance as employer attitudes change.

Meanwhile, by opening a second track in their autism giving with the donation to MIT, Hock and Tan are pursuing the even bigger dream of making real and lasting research breakthroughs. 

The MIT scientists plan to zero in on the genetic origins of autism in utero and the first years of life. The hope, here, is that the work will help scientists develop better detection methods and possibly prevent autism spectrum disorders altogether. Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute, says the gift allows MIT researchers to “pursue exciting new directions that could not be funded by traditional sources.” According to Desimone, researchers will take advantage of “revolutionary new tools” to aid in the development of “novel treatments that are not based on standard pharmacological approaches.”

Cutting-edge research in autism science is not an uncommon pursuit. These novel approaches can lead to major breakthroughs in the detection and treatment of autism spectrum disorders. But Desimone makes an important point: Finding funding for what could be considered standard research is easier to than for studies that involve new and sometimes untested hypotheses, often because such work carries a higher risk of failure.

Scientific and medical research doesn’t come cheap, and funding dollars are limited. It makes sense that some funders, especially the National Institutes of Health, opt to support what could be considered safer bets. As we stress repeatedly, philanthropy's added value in medical research—a field that attracts tens of billions in public dollars—is to back edgier work that might otherwise go unfunded. 

That's certainly been the approach of the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, or SFARI. Launched in 2003, SFARI is one of the largest autism science funders in the United States. The organization has an annual budget of around $75 million and awards a number of grants each year to support innovative autism research in the U.S. and abroad.

Related: What the Autism Science Foundation Cares about Supporting Right Now

Simons’ goal, like that of all autism science funders, is to move the entire research field forward. While outfits like the Autism Science Foundation focus on more traditional research pathways, Simons, like MIT's McGovern Institute, backs novel research such as developing a better understanding of genetics as it relates to autism spectrum disorders, stem cell research, and molecular mechanisms.

Related: Understanding the Simons Simplex Collection: Getting Beyond Autism