Debra Glennon has three boys. 

Her oldest has autism and is thriving.

It’s a complex neuro-developmental disorder – impacting communication and behavior.  

She said, “He was a very happy baby. I didn’t really know the sign of autism.”    

Debra’s 19-year advocacy journey led her to clinical trials and research at Yale School of Medicine as well as to noted investigators like Dr. Flora Vaccarino at the Autism Center of Excellence. 

She is leading a novel study, trying to unravel what went wrong at the very start.

Specifically, she’s looking into the difference in brain development between a child who has autism and one who does not.

Dr. Vaccarino asked, “Is there some gene? Is there some factor that’s a driver of these abnormal processes?” 

She and her team are doing it by growing stem cells in a petri dish — from tiny skin samples — taken from siblings in families living with autism.

It’s based on previous smaller studies, studying parents and their children.

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Pointing to an image, she said, “Each tiny, little dot is a cell, microscopic but real, active, doing something in the brain.”  

The cells are closely analyzed for any sign of imbalance.

“And we can look at the genes they express, the abnormalities that may underlie any faulty development that we may see,” said Dr. Vaccarino.     

Referring to a comparison of a parent and his child with autism, she explained, “You can see these red cells, a type of neuron that is an inhibitory type and you can see there is more of these red cells in the child here.” 

The hope is once there is a clearer understanding, it could lead to treatment, tailored to a family and targeting their particular cells. 

Debra said, “It’s mind boggling for me at my age to see that happening. I always talk to my son, the other two, and Mason about ‘imagine what’s going to be happening when you are at my age.'” 

For more information about how to get involved with the sibling autism research at the Autism Center of Excellence at Yale School of Medicine, call 203-764-5933 or e-mail


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