A first-of-its-kind research network is forming with an eye toward better understanding autism by studying kids who are most severely affected by the developmental disorder.

Six inpatient psychiatric facilities across the country that specialize in treating individuals with autism and other developmental disorders are coming together to form the new initiative known as the Autism and Developmental Disorders Inpatient Research Collaborative.

While significant resources have been devoted to autism research in recent years, those behind the new effort say large studies have generally failed to include individuals at the severe end of the spectrum.

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“There is so much that remains unknown about autism … and those most severely affected by the disorder both deserve our attention and are likely to provide us clues for understanding the core features of autism,” said Matthew Siegel of Spring Harbor Hospital and the Maine Medical Center Research Institute who is working with his colleague Susan Santangelo to spearhead the new project.

The network will be looking to better understand the genetics behind the communication, intellectual and psychiatric components of autism in hopes of developing more individualized treatments for the disorder, organizers said.

In addition to Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook, Maine, the network will include Bradley Hospital in East Providence, R.I., Hampstead Hospital in Hampstead, N.H., Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore, The Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, Colo. and Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinics in Pittsburgh.

The new effort is funded with a two-year $1.2 million grant from the Simons Foundation and the Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation. In that time, researchers plan to enroll 500 individuals at the hospitals in their study.

“In the short term, this will raise the standard of care in the participating hospital units and inform best practices for psychiatry units in the U.S. and abroad,” Santangelo said. “Ultimately we intend to make this study the launching point for future autism research that will unlock some of the mystery surrounding this disorder.”