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National Autism Project Director Dr Ian Ragan (left) with founder Dame Stephanie Shirley.Entrepreneur turned philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley has announced the launch of the National Autism Project, an initiative to assist research into autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). Based at Balliol College, Oxford, the Project will provide recommendations on autism research and practice in the UK, and seek to raise awareness at government level of how well-directed investment can benefit people with autism and reduce the demand on UK national resources from those on the autistic spectrum.

Dr Ian Ragan, formerly European Head of Neuroscience at US pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, is the Project’s Director, while its Strategy Board will be chaired by Dr Elizabeth Vallance and made up of key figures from the worlds of research and policy. The Project’s formal work is being led by health economist Professor Martin Knapp of the London School of Economics.

The Project’s remit will encompass biological and medical research, healthcare, education, social care and societal perception and understanding. It will seek to address the paucity of national resources devoted to research and intervention in ASD by providing data-based evidence for increasing funding, and assisting research-funding bodies to prioritise their efforts.

Autism affects around one per cent of the UK population and has an economic impact similar to that of dementia. 

Dame Stephanie, whose late son Giles was autistic, believes that a much more strategic approach to addressing the challenges and releasing the potential of those with autism is needed. “In the last ten years research has started to unlock the secrets of autism but we are a long way from seeing that turned into better life chances for those with the condition”, says Dame Stephanie. “The purpose of the National Autism Project is to show how better investment will lead to better research, better practice and better lives.”

Dame Stephanie, whose Shirley Foundation has already donated over £65m to autism projects, founded her first autism charity 20 years ago. Speaking of her motivation to launch the Autism Project, she said: “I am so impatient to see real change in my lifetime that I can wait no longer”.  

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