Newswise — COLUMBIA, Mo. – University of Missouri’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders already has enrolled 2,500 individuals with autism and their family members in the Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge (SPARK) project, the nation’s largest autism study, but researchers are continuing to search for more participants.

Sponsored by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, SPARK is partnering with scientists who hope to collect information and DNA for genetic analysis from 50,000 individuals with autism — and their families — to advance understanding of the causes of autism and hasten the discovery of supports and treatments.

The Thompson Center is one of a select group of national research institutions chosen by the Simons Foundation to assist with recruitment for the study. While the SPARK effort at MU is being led by Thompson Center Executive Director Stephen Kanne and his team, participants from across the country can complete the online enrollment.

“The beauty of the SPARK project is that it is free and convenient for any family because registration is online; all the required materials are mailed directly to their homes,” Kanne said. “We are proud 2,500 participants have already registered, but we still have room for more individuals and their families to join this groundbreaking effort.”

Previous research has identified approximately 50 genes that might play a role in autism; scientists estimate that an additional 300 or more genes are involved. By studying these genes, associated biological mechanisms and how genetics interact with environmental factors, researchers hope to better understand the condition’s causes and link them to the spectrum of symptoms, skills and challenges of those affected.

“SPARK empowers researchers to make new discoveries that will lead to the development of new supports and treatments to improve lives,” Kanne said. “The study is open to any individual with a professional diagnosis of autism. It’s important we have a diverse group of individuals for the study.”

SPARK will connect participants to researchers, offering opportunities for participants to join any of the multiple studies offered through SPARK. The initiative will catalyze research by creating large-scale access to study participants whose DNA may be analyzed for a specific scientific question. SPARK also will gather feedback from individuals and parents of children with autism to guide future research.

Anyone interested in learning more about SPARK or in participating in the study can visit:, or contact Amanda Shocklee at (573) 884-6092 or [email protected].