What causes autism spectrum disorders?
The exact causes of autism spectrum disorders are unknown. However, there is widely accepted evidence that there is a hereditary factor to these disorders since they run in families. Certain brain imaging studies have found a number of structural abnormalities in individuals on the autism spectrum that may affect development. Some researchers have posited theories that environmental factors may cause or exacerbate symptoms of autism spectrum disorders. Other researchers suggest that there may be a gene/environment interaction that determines whether or not an autism spectrum disorder will develop. Although vigorous debate continues within the scientific community, there is currently no definitive evidence that environmental factors cause autism spectrum disorders. It should be noted that no existing evidence suggests that autism spectrum disorders are caused by ineffective parenting.
Why is the incidence of autism increasing?
The Centers for Disease Control now estimates that 1 out of 68 children fall within the autism spectrum. There has been a lot of speculation as to why the rates of autism have risen over the years. Here are a few of the top reasons for the increase:
- The definition of autism is broader than it used to be. Autism is considered to fall along a spectrum (thus, it is now being called “autism spectrum disorder”). So, some people with high functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome who used to be just considered “nerds,” “geeks,” “introverts,” or “socially awkward” are now diagnosed as falling within the autism spectrum. At the other end of the spectrum, some children who were once considered mentally retarded or intellectually disabled are now properly being diagnosed as having a more severe autism spectrum disorder.
- There are more trained professionals as well as assessment instruments to evaluate and diagnose individuals who have an autism spectrum disorder (or ASD).
- Parents are more aware of ASD. Thus, they can seek out an assessment to determine whether their child has an ASD and access services.
- Some children who were formally (accurately or inaccurately) diagnosed as having an intellectual deficiency (formally referred to as mental retardation) are now being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Do vaccines cause autism?
Do vaccines cause autism?
Now, I know there’s been a lot of controversy regarding vaccines (specifically, the mumps, measles, and rubella or MMR vaccine) and the rise in the rate of autism. Well, from the medical community’s side, there really is no controversy. There is not one reputable, authoritative medical organization or body that claims that there is a link between autism rates and vaccines. The journal Lancet, which originally published the study linking the MMR vaccine and autism by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in 1998, issued a full retraction of the article in 2010. The Lancet discredited the original article on methodological grounds and a massive conflict of interest on the part of Dr. Wakefield (he was serving as the expert in a lawsuit alleging harm from vaccines).
In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Institute of Medicine have both conducted numerous exhaustive studies on the subject and concluded that there is no link between vaccines and autism. To find out some more on the history of the debate and links to studies that debunk the link between autism and vaccines, please visit this page of the AAP or here for a list of studies refuting the link. Additional, very rigorously conducted and controlled studies, such as this one described in this medical blog, also have concluded that there is no link. In a comprehensive study published in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also found no link between vaccines and autism. Additionally, new research using brain imaging suggests that there are detectable brain differences in babies who are later formally diagnosed as having an ASD as young as 6 months (well before the MMR vaccines are given).
My child has autism. What should I look for in a teacher?
If you child has autism, you might wish to seek special education support services and accommodations for him/her. Within special education, you should gain access to teachers who have training and experience in working with children who have autism. In general, a teacher who is patient, organized, and encouraging will generally be a good fit for your child. Moreover, a teacher who receives practical support from the school administration will be more prepared to meet the needs of your child. A classroom environment that is structured, organized, quiet, and encouraging is likely to prove beneficial for a child with autism. Many school districts also provide specific support and resources for children with autism spectrum disorders, such as regular social skills training groups, occupational therapy, counseling, and speech therapy services. Although some children with autism spectrum disorders are better served within special education, others are well served through the regular education or gifted and talented curriculum. The most appropriate placement for your child will likely depend upon their specific strengths and weaknesses.
Does autism look different in boys and girls?
Girls and boys with autism have the same core symptoms. However, boys and girls may display these symptoms somewhat differently. A girl with autism may be more likely to withdraw or display internalizing symptoms, whereas a boy with autism might “act up” and display his frustrations more outwardly. In general, girls tend to develop more sophisticated language skills at an earlier age than boys. This early advantage in language development for girls appears to compensate for their difficulties and, as a result, the symptoms of autism tend to be less noticeable in girls than in boys. However, the unique social deficits associated with autism have been found to be particularly challenging for girls, especially since girls in our society are known to be more relationally-oriented. That is, girls’ identity development places more emphasis on the strength of their relationships, whereas boys’ identity is typically more achievement-oriented. The impact of autism on social functioning and relationships can be extremely difficult and lonely for girls, particularly during and after adolescence.
What does autism look like in a teenager?
Teenagers with high-functioning autism may experience anxiety or rejection by their peers in social situations. These youths have difficulty navigating their social world due to deficits in interpreting social cues and reading the body language and facial expressions of others. Some youths with autism have difficulty demonstrating empathy or “putting themselves in others’ shoes.” As a result, they may not respond appropriately, or at all, in situations calling for an empathetic response. Their peers may view them as odd or different. Social rejection can cause them to experience feelings of loneliness or depression. In addition, young people with autism have difficulty responding flexibly to changes in routine and spontaneous events. They have a tendency to become visibly distressed when unexpected events or changes in routine occur. For this reason, it is important to notify them in advance of impending changes in routine, when possible, and respond patiently to your teen with autism when they demonstrate resistance to change.
What is the biology of autism spectrum disorders?
The neuropsychological basis of the autism spectrum continues to be explored. With the advent of newer imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers are beginning to map the complex circuitry that may underlie these disorders. Scientists know relatively little about the neurological abnormalities that are correlated with autism. However, a number of abnormalities in the structure and function of the brain have been specifically linked to autism in various studies. There is some evidence of frontal lobe dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders, which is consistent with observed deficits in executive function. Still, other studies have found abnormalities in structure or function of various areas of the brain including: the temporal lobe, amygdala, fusiform gyrus, operculum, parietal cortex, and cerebellum. Such diverse findings are not surprising when one considers that autism consists of a cluster of varied symptoms. Researchers caution against mapping autism to any one area, and stress that much more research is needed to better understand its neurobiology, particularly research utilizing brain-imaging studies with larger sample sizes.
What are the other psychological problems that can coexist with autism spectrum disorders?
A number of other difficulties may co-exist with autism, including but not limited to the following: ADD/ADHD, learning disabilities (particularly dysgraphia, or difficulty with writing), Tourette’s Syndrome/tic disorders, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, fine and gross motor difficulties, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), sensory integration dysfunction and central auditory processing difficulties. There is a particularly high comorbidity (co-occurring rate) with ADD/ADHD, anxiety, and depression. Mood difficulties, such as anxiety or depression, are very commonly seen as secondary difficulties that result from the isolation or social difficulties that individuals with autism experience.
What services might be available at my school for a child with autism?
If you child has autism, you might wish to seek special education support services and accommodations for him/her. Parents should contact school personnel to find out what specific services are available at that school and in that district, as they often vary. Standard services provided by schools include a combination of speech and language therapy, occupational and physical therapy, counseling, vocational education, and assistive technology, such as special computer software. Within the special education program, parents and school staff will meet together and develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for the student. Children with autism often do best in structured learning situations in which they learn problem-solving and social skills in conjunction with academic subjects.
Often the most prominent challenges that your child may face is coping with social development. Students with autism often require individualized or group training that targets social and emotional competency. Although many children with autism spectrum disorders are served within special education, children with high-functioning autism may be well served through the regular education or gifted and talented curriculum, depending on their specific strengths and weaknesses. In general, a teacher who is patient, organized, and encouraging will generally be a good fit for your child. Moreover, a teacher who receives practical support from the school administration will be more prepared to meet the needs of your child. A classroom environment that is structured, organized, quiet, and encouraging is likely to prove beneficial for a child with Asperger’s/autism.