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Originally published Wednesday, February 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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A champion fights the puzzle of autism

Geraldine Dawson is a champion puzzler who would put Will Shortz to shame. But her challenges are not wordplay with the answers printed on another page.

Geraldine Dawson is a champion puzzler who would put Will Shortz to shame. But her challenges are not wordplay with the answers printed on another page.

No, her puzzles have heartbeats — and autism spectrum disorder.Dr. Dawson, the founding director of the University of Washington Autism Center, is leaving the Northwest after 30 years of breaking genetic code, spotting clues that some babies might develop autism and noodling how to minimize the disorder's effects. Her work has been groundbreaking and helped the University of Washington be recognized by the National Institutes of Health as one of five new Autism Centers of Excellence.

Recently, she was named the new chief science officer for Autism Speaks, a national organization devoted to raising awareness about autism, funding research into the causes, prevention and treatments of autism, and advocating for those with autism and their families.

She takes the job at a critical time. Currently, about 1 in 150 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder — a rate that has increased almost by a factor of 10 in as many years. Each person with autism is different from every other person with autism. Some with the disorder might appear only to be socially awkward, while others need constant assistance and supervision.

While Dawson's departure from the UW is a loss for the region, people with autism here and everywhere will continue to benefit from her ongoing work and new responsibilities. New York-based Autism Speaks' research budget, which was $30 million in 2007 and is expected to grow, will be wellinformed by her talent for spotting promising answers to daunting challenges.

Rest assured, Dawson is still hard at work on solving this puzzle.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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