What We’ve Learned About Autism

Posted Fri, 04/05/2013 - 4:06pm by Camilla Cheung

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Not too long ago, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) were a mysterious group of symptoms with no known cause or cure. But alarming rates of autism in the general population have propelled research into the disease, and in the past five years, knowledge about the disorder has increased dramatically. What have we learned, and does the new research hold out hope for those affected by ASD?

Yes, Autism Rates Are Increasing

A few years ago, many people speculated that perhaps increased apparent rates of autism had more to do with improved diagnosis and awareness than an actual increase in cases. However, research now shows that yes, autism cases are increasing at an alarming rate independently of improved diagnosis. 1 in 88 children are affected by autism spectrum disorders, and the diagnosis is five times more common in boys than in girls (1 in 54 rather than 1 in 252).

We Know More About the Causes

Five years ago, the causes of autism were shrouded in mystery. In recent years, we have learned a great deal about the possible causes of autism — and we've learned that in most cases there are multiple factors.

Research in the past few years has found that there is certainly a genetic component to autism risk. Researchers have found over 100 gene mutations that raise the risk of autism. However, in most cases, the cause of autism is not merely genetic, but also involves environmental factors.

The clearest environmental factors occur before, during, or closely after birth. Parental age is a factor (especially older fathers), as is infection and illness in the pregnant mother. Babies who are born premature, have low birth weight, or were deprived of oxygen during birth have a higher risk.

Some research suggests that mothers who were exposed to high levels of pesticides and pollution, or who did not take folic acid supplements in the months before and after conceiving the child, have a higher risk of having a child with autism.

Research Has Found No Link Between Vaccines and Autism

There have been a plethora of studies done investigating a possible link between vaccines (especially the measles, mumps and rubella — or MMR — vaccine) and autism, and no link between vaccines and autism has been found. Bolstering these findings, a recent report from the Journal of Pediatrics finds that there is no link between autism and having multiple vaccinations at once.

Anecdotal evidence abounds on the web from parents whose children develop autism symptoms at around the same time they receive vaccines. However, experts believe this is coincidence, since the most common age of onset of autistic symptoms — between 18 and 24 months — coincides with many childhood vaccines. However, experts have not yet ruled out the possibility that in rare cases, vaccines may trigger the onset of symptoms if the child already has an underlying condition.

Parents are, however, understandably concerned about the risks of vaccines. If you are considering not vaccinating your child, please consult a pediatrician who is willing to work out a modified vaccination schedule for your child. Not vaccinating your child puts him or her at risk of serious diseases such as whooping cough, measles, meningitis, and more — many of which can be deadly.

Early Diagnosis and Treatment Are Key

The more experts learn about autism, the more they stress the importance of early intervention. Within the first two years, and certainly within the first five, children are learning and developing at an amazing rate. Parents should be vigilant about a delay or regression in certain milestones and skills, especially in terms of social interaction. If by a year, your child does not babble, communicate using gestures, smile, and perform some kind of back-and-forth interaction with you, let your pediatrician know. By 18 months, a more definitive diagnosis can often be made. Children can also develop symptoms later.

Early treatment with behavioral therapy, medication, and other therapies can greatly improve your child's (and your) quality of life. In addition, the newest studies suggest that with therapy, a very small number of children diagnosed with autism are able to recover to the point that they no longer qualify for the diagnosis. However, these children are in the minority, and the research is still preliminary. There is still no known cure for autism spectrum disorders.

Find more information about autism at AutismSpeaks.org.

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