With millions in funding, a public-private partnership is launching a national study aiming to better classify children with autism in order to improve treatment options.

The National Institutes of Health said this week that it is teaming with the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative and other private partners to fund a $28 million effort over four years. The project will focus on establishing better clinical measures of social impairment.

“The heterogeneity in people with an ASD makes it imperative that we find more precisely diagnosed groups of research subjects so that we can objectively evaluate the clinical effects of an intervention,” said Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. “This consortium project will develop reliable tools and measures that clinical researchers can use to assess potential treatments.”

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For the study, researchers at five sites across the country will follow preschoolers ages 3 to 5 and kids ages 6 to 11, both with and without autism, over several months. They will test a variety of measures of social functioning — ranging from eye tracking and electroencephalograms, or EEGs, to lab tests and caregiver assessments — to identify the most reliable methods.

“Our ultimate goal is to produce a set of measures that can be used as biomarkers of social and communicative function in ASD and that could serve as indicators of long-term clinical outcome in clinical and drug development studies,” said James McPartland, an associate professor at the Yale Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine who will lead the study.