Diane Stephenson of Groton has three tangible reasons for wanting to know as much as possible about autism.
Stephenson, associate research fellow at Pfizer Inc.'s Groton laboratories who helped start an autism research unit there earlier this year, has two nephews and a niece with the neurological disorder, which is often accompanied by language difficulties, behavioral problems, sleep interruptions, poor eye contact and low social skills.
Her sister's son Thomas, 23, has never spoken a word. And two of her brother's children, Clarise, 5, and Craig, 2, also have been diagnosed with autism.
Autism is believed to be caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors, but there is little doubt the disorder tends to run in families. Stephenson said couples who have one autistic child are 30 times more likely than others to have a second with the same disorder.
"Everyone wants a cure," said Stephenson, who has worked at the Groton labs for six years. "I felt there was something I could do."
So Stephenson, along with Pfizer colleague Howie Mayer, who has two children with autism, worked behind the scenes for a year with the idea of forming a separate research unit focusing on autism. They later added another colleague, Larry Fitzgerald, as the group put the finishing touches on its proposal, contacting key experts outside Pfizer who had a grasp on the latest breakthroughs in autism research.
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