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Family Hopes to Help Doctors Gain Greater Understanding of Autism

The family will participate in the SPARK project, a nationwide study to develop a greater understanding of autism

A Chicago family with two sons on the autism spectrum is taking part in a new nationwide study to help develop a greater understanding of the disorder.

 “It was a shock for us. At first we didn’t know what autism was,” Alfredo Ramirez said.

Nallely and Alfredo Ramirez have three children, and their two boys, 8-year-old Giovanni and 6-year-old Gabriel are on the autism spectrum.

The Ramirez family is not alone. Recent CDC estimates show one in every 59 children is diagnosed with autism.

“Within autism there are still so many unknowns and people want answers to those unknowns, “ said Holly Lechniak, Outreach Director at Rush University Medical Center’s Austim, Assessment, Research, Treatment & Services Center (AARTS). 

Rush researchers are pursuing answers by taking part in what’s called the SPARK project. The nationwide study is working to collect family information and DNA samples from 50,000 individuals with autism and, ideally, their biological parents as well.

“In order to develop treatment and have a better understanding of autism, we need families who are willing to participate and engage in the research that allows us to figure out what works,” Lechniak said.

The Ramirez family plans to submit their sons’ DNA at a collection event this weekend, with one goal in mind.

“Find more answers and more hope for, not just my kids, but all the kids that have autism,” Nallely Ramirez explains.

The collection event is Saturday, Sept. 28 from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Advocate Children’s Hospital, 1775 Dempster Street in Park Ridge.  To RSVP for the event or to request more information, you can contact Holly Lechniak at or (312) 563-2765.

If you are unable to attend, visit the SPARK project’s website to request a collection kit be mailed to your home.

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