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Anne Kirby to Use KL2 Award to Explore Suicide Risk in Autistic Youth

May 25, 2017

The Center for Clinical and Translational Science at University of Utah Health is pleased to present Anne Kirby, Ph.D., assistant professor in Occupational and Recreational Therapies, with the KL2 Career Development Award to continue her work on autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Kirby’s research has focused on improving the quality of life for people with autism, especially as they transition from adolescence into adulthood. During a conversation with her mentor, she learned of the suicide of an autistic child. This revelation was compounded by several recent publications that suggested ASD youth may be at an elevated risk of suicide. “I was shocked by these findings, but few of the studies used population-based data to identify characteristics that put people with autism at risk for following through with suicidal tendencies,” she said.

Kirby decided to take her research one step farther, and she applied to the KL2 program.

The only available population-based study, which was conducted in Sweden, examined the risk of mortality in the autistic population. Their findings showed an increased risk of suicide in autistic individuals, especially girls, compared to their peers. Kirby will use the KL2 award to conduct a similar population-based study, specifically focused on exploring the risk of suicide in autistic youth in the United States.

For this project, Kirby will compare two unique datasets. She will compare data of people who have committed suicide in Utah to the Utah Registry of Autism and Developmental Disabilities. “We are fortunate in Utah to have both of these datasets available to us,” she said. Kirby is eager to see if the Utah data supports the Swedish study or if other factors, like culture and society, could affect the outcome.

As part of the KL2 scholar program, Kirby also will obtain training to advance her studies. She will expand her experience in epidemiology and the treatment of mental illness in autistic patients in the clinical setting. “It will be interesting to see if current screening methods are appropriate for people with autism,” she said.

In addition, Kirby will coordinate with her two KL2 mentors ¾ Hilary Coon, Ph.D., research professor in Psychiatry and Deborah Bilder, M.D., medical director of the Neurobehavior HOME Program ¾ who have access to a national scientific community aligned with the focus of this project.

Kirby hopes to apply the results of this study to help the broader autistic community. “My long-term goals are to improve the risk identification and develop individualized interventions with the emphasis on minimizing harm to and increasing quality of life for people with autism and their families,” said Kirby.

“We believe that Dr. Kirby’s research is a perfect example for a KL2 scholar.” said Dr. Maureen Murtaugh, the Co-Director of the Utah CCTS KL2 Career Development Program. “Her work in autism tackles an important question in this under-studied population to bring more treatment options to a broader group of patients.”

The KL2 Scholar Program is part of the CCTS workforce development program aimed at training and mentoring clinical junior investigators to foster the transfer of translational research to clinical applications. The program’s goal is to stimulate innovative research initiatives and career development.