The sixth annual World Autism Awareness Day is today, April 2, 2013. Every year, autism organizations around the world celebrate the day with unique fundraising and awareness-raising events. I wanted to take the time to explain to those who may not be familiar with autism as to what it is exactly so as to spread awareness. All of the following information is directly from Autism Speak’s website, which is an organization promoting awareness for the disorder.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development that are characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. The new DSM-5 diagnostic manual will be published in may and the different disorders (including autism, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified, and Asperger syndrome) will be merged into one overarching diagnosis of ASD.
ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues. Often, persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music, math and art.
Autism appears to have its roots in very early brain development. However, the most obvious signs of autism and symptoms of autism tend to emerge between 2 and 3 years of age. Autism Speaks continues to fund research on effective methods for earlier diagnosis, as early intervention with proven behavioral therapies can improve outcomes.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around 1 in 88 American children as on the autism spectrum–a ten-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years. Careful research shows that this increase is only partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness. Studies also show that autism is four to five times more common among boys than girls. An estimated 1 out of 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls are diagnosed with autism in the United States.
Not long ago, the answer to this question of what causes autism would have been “we have no idea.” Research is now delivering the answers. First and foremost, we now know that there is no one cause of autism just as there is no one type of autism. Over the last five years, scientists have identified a number of rare gene mutations associated with autism. A small number of these are sufficient to cause autism by themselves. Most cases of autism, however, appear to be caused by a combination of autism risk genes and environmental factors influencing early brain development.
In the presence of a genetic predisposition to autism, a number of nongenetic, or “environmental,” stresses appear to further increase a child’s risk. The clearest evidence of these autism risk factors involves events before and during birth. They include advanced parental age at time of conception (both mom and dad), maternal illness during pregnancy and certain difficulties during birth, particularly those involving periods of oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain. It is important to keep in mind that these factors, by themselves, do not cause autism. Rather, in combination with genetic risk factors, they appear to modestly increase risk.
A growing body of research suggests that a woman can reduce her risk of having a child with autism by taking prenatal vitamins containing folic acid and/or eating a diet rich in folic acid during the months before and after conception.
For more information about autism, see the Autism Speaks website. Also, please consider donating, as the foundation is taking incredible steps toward learning more and more about the disorder. For an interesting article on ten things research has taught us now about autism in simply the last year, please see this article.