If you have a chance to listen to Geneticist Wendy Chung’s TED talk on autism, do so. She briefly summarizes where we are on better understanding the Autism Spectrum Disorders. Here are a few of her points:
1) Autism is a spectrum disorder which means it looks different in different children. There is a wide range of symptoms and functioning.
2) Better awareness of the disorder and symptoms and a wider definition of the disorder have led to more diagnoses. This may explain why the rate of 1 in 88 is higher than previous decades.
3) While we are still unclear as to why some children develop autism, we are clear that vaccines DO NOT cause autism. The original study associating vaccines has been pulled by the Lancet because it was fraudulent and the author has lost his medical license. Furthermore, the ingredient in the vaccines thought to be the culprit was removed from the vaccines in 1992 and the rate of autism has not decreased.
4) A few associated factors are paternal advanced age, exposure to certain agents during pregnancy and genetics.
5) Genetics play a role but the role varies. In some children, there is no family history of autism. Thus a gene or combination of genes are mutated or changed creating the condition with no passed down genetics. In others, there may be a genetic link.
6) The disorder can result from a single gene or a combination of genes. In fact, there can be 200-400 genes that form certain combinations. This is why we see such variety of symptoms.
7) One new direction is to identify specific genes in order to target specific drugs as potential treatment; other areas of development are the use of educational strategies and technology to train the brain.
8) Families can join the Interactive Autism Network in order to help clinicians and researchers better understand autism spectrum disorder.
9) Despite the progress on identifying genetic markers, we still do not know a lot.
10) The 4 to 1 ratio of male to female is still not understood. Early identification is key. Strategies such as looking at infants biomarkers that put them at risk, e.g., not socially connecting and tracking with eye movements, are being developed.