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After $1B, experts see progress on autism's causes

• http://www.boston.com, By Mike Stobbe
 In some ways, the research looks like a long-running fishing expedition, with a focus on everything from genetics to the age of the father, the weight of the mother, and how close a child lives to a freeway.

That perception may soon change. Some in the field say it's the beginning of a wave of scientific reports that should strengthen some theories, jettison others and perhaps even herald new drugs.

The effort has been infused with new urgency by a recent federal report that found autism disorders are far more common than was previously understood, affecting 1 in 88 U.S. children. Better diagnosis is largely responsible for the new estimate, but health officials said there may actually be more cases of autism, too.

If autism's causes remain a mystery, "you're not going to be able to stop this increase," said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a researcher at the University of California, Davis who is leading a closely watched study into what sparks autism disorders.

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