Pitt researchers examine possible link between environmental risks and autism



PITTSBURGH - After-school playtime at the Walter house includes lots of games between Lily and big sister Emma.

"She's just a lot of fun. Full of life. Loves to dance, loves to sing," is how Leslie Walter described her daughter Lily.

But when Lily missed her developmental milestones, her parents knew something was just a bit off.

"It's very scary. You don't want to face it. You want to believe that they're fine," said her mother.

Doctors diagnosed Lily with autism.

Immediately her parents started asking questions only to find few answers.

"You just want someone to be able to say 'OK, I got this one. We know what to do for Lily.' And we've yet to really discover that," Walter said.

"We need to determine are there things we can do something about," said Evelyn Talbott, an epidemiologist the Pitt Public Health.

Talbot leads a team of Pitt researchers investigating the possible link between environmental factors and autism.

According to the CDC, the rate of autism in Southwestern Pennsylvania is 25 percent higher than the national average.

Researchers want to know if pollution from our industry, highways or water sources are behind the startling statistic.

"I would like to know what are the risk factors so women planning on getting pregnant, who are pregnant can say 'I want to do this different,'" Talbot said.

For the Walter family, any findings are helpful to families of autistic children.

"If there's something that we're doing environmentally that can be minimized that helps other parents and other kids, all that's great stuff, and that's important," said Lily's father, Jim.

Talbott hopes to include 250 families with autistic children between the ages of 3 to 7 in the study.

She said the study involves a 45-minute interview with the parents, and families would receive a stipend.

To find out if you qualify or for more information, log on to their website.

Researchers hope to finish the study in a year.