The National Institutes of Health received $10.4 billion from last year's stimulus package, and the NIH said more than $8 billion of those funds went toward scientific projects and to centers involved in research.
One of those institutions was the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where researchers were working on a program designed to help children with autism learn to speak.
Ryan Wallace is a product of that program. Listening to him talk now, you would never know that a few years ago the 7-year-old didn't talk.
"He was tapping us on the arm or making noises," Ryan's dad Gerald Wallace Jr. Said.
Ryan was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 years old. He lived in a world of silence.
That was until his parents brought him to Vanderbilt's Center for Otolaryngology and Communication Sciences in Nashville, Tenn.
There therapists and doctors worked with Ryan to improve his vocabulary and speech, something that's difficult for some children with autism.
"The hidden side of this is that they also have a lot of difficulty understanding, comprehending, auditory comprehension, listening," said Dr. Steven Camarata of Vanderbilt's Wilkerson Center.
Because of the success of the program, Vanderbilt University researchers received a two-year federal stimulus grant of $670,000 to evaluate sensory integration therapy, a widely used but controversial method for improving communication skills in children with autism.
Ryan was one of the participants.
Sensory integration therapy is a type of occupational therapy that places a child in a room specifically designed to challenge all of his senses, which helps to stimulate speech. It's controversial because scientific data on its effectiveness isn't very strong.
Vanderbilt doctors are trying to build data on the therapy.
"When these parents are seeking answers, we as researchers can come to them with answers that have been tested and validated scientifically," Camarata said.
In the study, Ryan was given pictures on a computer screen and asked to name and identify the items. He was also given a story that engaged all his senses.
The study was two-fold. Once Ryan had gone through his therapy, he was fitted with special head gear that recorded his brain language sensors while he watched a video that incorporated the words he just learned.
By getting a picture of the brain, it gave doctors an insight into how the autistic brain works.
"When you learn a new word, you see it and then somebody tells you the name of it and then you link these things in your long-term memory," Camarata said. "People with autism have a very hard time doing that."
Ryan's parents said the program has made a huge difference.
And for Camarata, the stimulus has helped him jump start a program that would have taken months to get off the ground.
"We are finally starting to get to the point where we can test different interventions and see what works and what doesn't work, and that's crucial," Camarata said.
One of the main purposes of the stimulus was to create jobs, and it did. The parents who have children involved in the study said the jobs have also stimulated the lives of their children.
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