The Eagles announced a new initiative Friday aimed at helping three of the region's major research institutions do an end run around one of the nation's fastest growing developmental disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The Eagles Autism Challenge is a cycling and walk/run event that will bring together coaches, players, cheerleaders, executives, and other parts of the team organization along with families and other members of the public to raise funds to support and expand the already considerable autism research efforts at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), Drexel University, and Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health.

"It is very difficult for a single institution to address the complex medical and scientific issues presented by the condition of autism," said Eagles chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie, who has a brother on the autism spectrum. "So the partnership was organized to bring fresh ways of thinking and the necessary resources to the field."

The Lurie family has donated more than $76 million to the study of autism.

Intended to be an annual event and a long-term commitment, the maiden Eagles Autism Challenge is planned for Saturday, May 19. It will feature cycling routes of 15, 30, and 50 miles as well as a 5K walk/run, all starting at Lincoln Financial Field. Eagles officials say 100 percent of participant-raised funds will go to research and program efforts at the three partners.

The rate of autism has grown rapidly, more than doubling in the last 15 years. Some attribute that to increased awareness and better diagnosis, but many people believe that, for reasons yet unknown, the incidence itself is increasing.

Currently, an estimated one in 68 children is affected, including one in 42 boys. Federal studies suggest New Jersey may have the highest incidence in the nation.

A complex disorder, its symptoms vary from child to child, ranging from mild to severe. However, it is often associated with communication difficulties, problems with social interaction, and a tendency toward repetitive behaviors.

The Eagles' research partners are already doing pioneering work in autism research and services. But they see opportunities for expanded research through collaboration.

With the Eagles' commitment to continuing support, Robert T. Schultz, director of CHOP's Center for Autism Research, said the partners can conceivably do long-term research that follows individuals through stages of life and development.

Currently, Schultz said, most autism funding comes from the National Institutes of Health for studies typically of limited duration, perhaps two or five years. Like many in his field, Schultz believes autism is underfunded, given the large number of people it affects.

The national organization Autism Speaks also sponsors fund-raising walk/runs, as do advocates for other health concerns.

But these partners see a special opportunity for their three local institutions, each with their own areas of focus and emphasis,  to come together and "capitalize on our individual strengths," said Craig Newschaffer, founding director of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.

"We're really excited," said Roseann Schaaf, professor and chairwoman of the Department of Occupational Therapy at the Jefferson College of Health Professions.

The hope is that their work together will have an impact on the lives of local children and children elsewhere.

"Scientific breakthroughs don't happen in silos," said Schaaf, who is also a cyclist and plans to ride in the challenge. "I think Philadelphia is going to come out as a real research leader in autism."