Autism: Reality, Recognition and Research — Part III

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Dec 30, 2019 · 5 min read
Autistic girl at play
Autistic girl at play

By Dr. Gary Deel
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

This is the third of a three-part series on coping with autism.

In the first article in this series, I told the story of my autistic son Carl and how I came to be involved in autism research. In this part, I will discuss how autism is diagnosed and treated today, as well as research for cures and preventative measures on the horizon.

Autism is most often diagnosed through psychological and behavioral evaluations with pediatric developmental psychologists. Doctors look for signs of abnormal cognitive development, which include:

· Language delays

· Lack of appropriate eye contact

· Lack of attention to people or to the child’s name

· Motor tics and/or spasms (including involuntary flailing of hands and arms)

EEGs and MRIs can be used to look for abnormal brain activity, but not all autistic individuals show abnormal patterns on these scans, so they are not completely reliable diagnostic tools.

We still don’t know the precise factors that cause an increased risk for autism. Several studies reviewed in Spectrum suggested that the parents’ ages may play a role in autism frequency, with older parents being more likely to give birth to autistic children.

Fathers’ ages have shown particularly strong correlations, with men in their 40s and 50s having a far greater risk of fathering an autistic child than men in their 20s and 30s. With many couples waiting longer to have children today relative to previous generations, age might be a potential explanation for some of the increase in autism diagnoses.

Couples with One Autistic Child Have an Increased Risk of Having Other Autistic Children

These studies have also shown that couples with one autistic child have an increased risk of having other autistic children. Some research estimates that that the risk increase is as much as five-fold for a second child of such parents.

The causes of the variability in autism symptoms, and the physiological and biological manifestations of its effects, are also not well understood. Most experts agree that autism is the result of corrupted and/or failed communications within the brain. Many researchers today suspect that genetics may be ultimately responsible for autism.

Because older men are more likely to father autistic children than younger men, some researchers believe that random genetic mutations may be to blame. As men age, their sperm experience an increasing number of random genetic mutations resulting from copy errors in the DNA-duplication process over time.

If genetic mutations are indeed responsible for autism, then the fact that older men have more sperm with mutated genes could potentially explain the relative increase in autistic children fathered by such men. It’s important to note that while deductive reasoning would support the existence of such a causal link, no direct evidence of causality has as yet been reported.

The Erroneous Belief that Vaccinations Are Responsible for Autism Needs to Be Debunked

The all-too-popular erroneous belief that vaccinations are responsible for autism needs to be debunked. In the 1990s, British physician Andrew Wakefield studied 12 children and concluded — from little more than temporal correlations — that vaccines cause autism.

Wakefield’s study has since been thoroughly debunked as junk science. His sample size was laughably small and his conclusions were unjustifiable. Also, he had a huge conflict of interest in that his work was funded by attorneys who represented families suing pharmaceutical companies for causing autism with their vaccines.

A plethora of studies were later conducted to try to reproduce Wakefield’s findings. Nearly all of them found that there is no statistically significant causal relationship between vaccines and autism. Wakefield’s medical license has since been revoked, and his work has been unanimously denounced within the medical community.

Families Frightened by Wakefield’s Bogus Claims Are Declining to Vaccinate Their Children

Sadly, though, a large number of people are still frightened by Wakefield’s bogus claims and are declining to vaccinate their children. That of course presents a very serious risk that horrible diseases such as polio, once thought to be wiped out, might reappear globally.

As discussed in the second part of this article series, treatment for autistic children most commonly consists of therapy, usually in the form of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. ABA focuses on teaching a wide range of normal social and communicative skills, including interactions with other people, appropriate behaviors, and some language development.

Other special therapies may be prescribed for autistic individuals with specific needs. For those with gastrointestinal issues, treatment might include special diets such as the gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet and others that avoid allergens and ingredients that cause the manifestation of symptoms.

Stem Cell Therapy Has Shown Significant Promise in Autism Treatment in Clinics Abroad

The future of autism is uncertain, as no cure seems to be close at hand. But fortunately, this serious issue is receiving increasing attention thanks to the growth of funding and support for research. Scientists are testing the latest in medical research and technology, so it’s possible that we may be closing in on potential cures or prevention methods.

For example, although stem cell therapy has been banned in the United States for years, it has shown significant promise in clinics abroad. Recently, Duke University began clinical trials on stem cell treatment for autistic children. The preliminary results are encouraging.

Another treatment for autism that is the subject of current research is cannabidiol (CBD) oil, a derivative of the marijuana plant. CBD oil had also been banned in the United States, but it was recently legalized in 2018. It has been reported to alleviate symptom severity for autistic children, so new research is underway to investigate this opportunity.

Other medical research is investigating whether gestation issues might contribute to the growth of autism, including exposure of pregnant mothers to different chemicals, foods, medications, hormones, and other environmental elements that could affect a fetus in utero.

If our society continues to support these research efforts, there is every reason to believe that we can beat autism.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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