April: Autism Awareness Month

This month, we're spreading awareness and acceptance around Autism — a disease that affect millions around the world and about 1 in 68 children.  The rate of Autism has steadily grown over the last 20 years. 


What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability  that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. It alters the way a person communicates, interacts, behaves and learns. Learning, thinking and problem solving skills can range from what we call "gifted" to "severely challenge."

If someone is diagnosed with ASD, it includes several conditions:

  • autistic disorder
  • pervasive developmental disorder
  • Asperger syndrome 

Autism is difficult to diagnose. Many physicians observe an adult or child's behavior to determine disease. Many children do not receive a diagnosis until they are much older. 

Autism Risk Factors

Risk factors for Autism have been debated for many decades among medical experts. Most scientists agree that genetics plays a major role in developing the disease. 

                                                 Other risk factors may be: 

  • Boys are five times more likely to develop it than girls
  • Children who have a sibling with ASD are at a higher risk 
  • ASD tends to occur more often in people who have certain genetic or chromosomal conditions, such as fragile X syndrome  or tuberous sclerosis
  • Women who are pregnant and take the prescription drugs, valproic acid and thalidomide, have been linked with a higher risk 
  • There is some evidence that the critical period for developing ASD occurs before, during, and immediately after birth.
  • Children born to older parents are at greater risk for having ASD

Signs & Symptoms of Autism

Symptoms can vary between children and adults diagnosed with Autism. Many of the signs are an action that is opposite of what is expected in a particular situation. About 40% of children who have Autism do not speak. 

Autism signs may include:

  • not pointing at objects to show interest (for example, not pointing at an airplane flying over)
  • not look at objects when another person points at them
  • trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all
  • avoids eye contact and craves isolation
  • issue with understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • prefer not to be held or cuddled
  • appear to be unaware when people talk to them, but respond to other sounds
  • very interested in people, but unaware of how to talk, play, or relate to them
  • repeat or echo words or phrases said to them
  • have trouble expressing needs using typical words or motions
  • repeat actions over and over again
  • trouble adapting when a routine changes
  • unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound

Latest Autism Clinical Studies

Photo: Julie Yellow

Photo: Julie Yellow

There is currently no cure for Autism but many clinical trials have revealed information we didn't have before. Overall, research shows the earlier it's diagnosed the better patients can develop and learn. Scientists are unsure if any factors in a person's environment increase the risk for the disease. 

Studies Evaluating Twins

Many studies have analyzed twins to determine it's a genetically-based condition. If an identical twin had autism then it can be determined the other twin had an 80-90% chance of having the disease. 

Role of Parent's Age in Autism Development

A new study, published in the Maternal and Child Health Journal, suggests that the age of parents, which has been thought to be a key indicator in the rise of autism over the last two decades, accounts for a small portion of those diagnosed with the disease. The report finds that increased parental age accounts for just 2.7 percent of the rise in autism prevalence between 1994 and 2001.

Mortality Rate 

A 2008 Danish Study found that the mortality risk among those with Autism was nearly twice that of the general population. 

Autism Gene

Recently, in a study published in the journal Nature Communications revealed the known risk gene for Autism CHD8 controls thousands of other genes. Scientists say, many of these genes are also linked to autism. Mapping this intricate network is a step toward peeling back the layers of genetic complexity in autism and why brain development shifts drastically with this disease. 

Autistic Children Can Learn Social Skills

A new study from the US Department of Education studied students with ASD. 

Students were put grouped into a social peer network focused on teaching social communication skills such as requesting, commenting and saying “niceties” such as please and thank you while playing with toys and board games. 

“We found that the children who participated in the social network not only made significant progress in social communication during the intervention but also made many more initiations to their peers in genera," said the lead researcher, Debra Kamps

Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism

Recently with the measles outbreak, we saw a lot of the conversation turn to the vaccine causing autism in children. There has been no medical evidence to suggest or confirm this. The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that the 1998 study that raised public concern was flawed and has been retracted. 

Treating Autism

It's important to note that Autism is treatable. Early detection is key. This can put into effect a personalized prevention plan created by the child's doctor. Treatment must focus on the individual's unique strengths, weaknesses and needs.Behavioral and educational approaches as well as sensory, communication and other therapies are an option. Doctors may approach the disease with certain bio medical treatments such as diet modifications, additions of vitamins and minerals, gut treatments and immune system regulations.