Thursday, April 2, 2009

World Autism Day raises awareness, but what is the cause?

BY Rosemary Black

It’s a devastating diagnosis for any parent to hear. And more parents than ever are learning that their child has autism: it now afflicts about 1 in 150 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It’s four times more prevalent in boys than in girls.

As World Autism Awareness Day - designated by the United Nations as Tuesday, April 2 - winds down, the spotlight is on why the disorder is on the increase, why the causes still elude researchers, and why early diagnosis is so important.

“We know autism is on the rise and we know there is a genetic predisposition,” says Dr. Cathy Pratt, board chairperson for the Autism Society of America ( “The controversy is over what is the trigger that actually causes it to occur. A lot of research is on what triggers it. I think that we will find that there are multiple causes. It’s not like a broken arm.”

A diagnosis of autism can be a parent’s greatest fear, says Dr. Pio Andreotti, Psy. D., a neuropsychologist at Long Island College Hospital. “Autism seems to strike without any warning,” he says. “A parent goes through a typical pregnancy and a typical delivery and then finds out two years later that their child is not who they thought she was. The parent’s world changes and they have to adapt to what those changes are.”

With no genetic testing or blood testing available, it can seem like a long wait to see if a child will be autistic or not. Early treatment makes a big difference, says Andreotti, and there are varying degrees of severity of autism.

Diagnosis focuses on a variety of behavioral characteristics in the child: challenges in the area of social skills, communication problems, and having a very focused interest or a fixation on certain objects - like ceiling fans or refrigerators, Pratt says.

A diagnosis of autism is typically made at around the age of two, although some researchers claim that they can detect symptoms in babies as young as 10 months, Andreotti says. “A child can have a very mild autistic syndrome and be fairly high functioning or can have profound autism.”

Risk factors that may increase the chances of having an autistic child include parental age. “The older the parents are at the time of conception, the more likely that the child will have autism,” says Andreotti. “If you already have a child with autism, you’re at a higher risk of having aother child with autism. And there’s also a high correlation between autism and seizure disorders.”

Fortunately, early intervention (before the age of three) can make a huge impact, Pratt says, and parents need support, too.

“Regardless of the cause of autism, what we have to remember is that these are very challenging children and that the parents can have an incredibly challenging time living with them,” Pratt says. “Clearly there is a real need for services.”


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