For decades, the word autism meant an immutable brain disorder, one determined solely by genes and that was only marginally responsive to therapies.
Today it is coming to mean something different and more manageable.
A growing body of research is dramatically changing the face and future of autism. I’d like to share four of the most profound changes:
More than genes. Experts once argued that autism was purely a genetic disorder. Yet no one has found anything close to a genetic smoking gun when it comes to autism. Dozens of genes have been associated with autism, but all of them together account for less than 15-20% of diagnoses. Decades-old research suggested that identical twins almost always share identical autism diagnoses, but recent research shows that’s not true. Scientists are also learning more about possible environmental contributors to autism. We’ve long known that certain toxins were associated with autism, but a 2011 study showed that women who took prenatal vitamins before conceiving and in early pregnancy were less likely to have a child on the autism spectrum. Another found a link between antidepressant use during pregnancy and a child’s autism. Though there is reasonable debate about how much genes contribute to autism and how much the environment contributes, few experts today argue that genes are solely responsible for autism.
Beyond the brain. We’re discovering that autism is not just a brain disorder but a whole-body condition. Roughly 70% of kids with autism have digestive system problems. Children on the autism spectrum often have sleep problems and immune system troubles. Seizures are also common. Whatever autism “is,” it doesn’t affect just the brain. Science is showing many ways that brain and body deeply influence each other. Traditionally, parents have been encouraged to pursue therapies directed at their child’s brain and behavior issues. The family stories presented in The Autism Revolutionsuggest that treating these so-called ancillary symptoms can make a profound difference in the family’s life, and even in the autism itself.
Kids can improve. A lot.
(To read the rest of the post, go to the Harvard Health Publications blog.)