Welcome to Part 2 of the Autism 101 series. Check out Part 1 of the series, which begins with an introduction to autism spectrum disorder. For Part 2 today, we will be learning about red flags and potential causes according to current autism research.
There are lots of misconceptions out there about autism, which is why it's important to read up on current (and valid) research. Not everything on the internet is true (the majority of what's out there is probably false!) so make sure to do your homework! Make sure you are backing up what you are reading with other sources of information - this is just good practice!
So, we've gained a basic understanding of autism, and the common characteristics of ASD. Now, let's take a look at some of the warning signs of autism, or the indicators that you may consider an evaluation...
So we know the characteristics, we know the warning signs, we know the criteria for a diagnosis... but why is autism so prevalent in our world today? Why the increase? Why the discrepancies between genders? What is causing this?
Let's take a look at the research to answer some of these questions...
I want to start out by saying that researchers do not agree on the causes of autism, or even the reason why autism appears to be affecting people more and more. Some researchers think it may be because we have a greater awareness of ASD, therefore parents and caregivers are requesting evaluations more than previous decades. Other researchers believe that with changes in criteria for autism and a better understanding of the disorder, we are seeing more and more cases that would be considered autism now, but previously would have been overlooked. Still others are researching if there is indeed an increase in actual cases of autism. Maybe it's a combination of all three. According to the CDC, "some of the increase is due to the way children are identified, diagnoses, and served in their local communities, although exactly how much is due to these factors is unknown."
Not particularly helpful in identifying causes, but this certainly doesn't matter when thinking about the need for supporting individuals with ASD, regardless of it's prevalence.
Causes of Autism
Autism is not just one condition with one identified "cause." Rather, it is a spectrum disorder with a group of related symptoms with multiple factors. Although researchers do not know for certain what causes autism, they believe it may be caused by both genetics and environmental factors.
Biological Risk Factors
Studies have shown that some people have a genetic predisposition to autism. This helps to shed some light on the increased likelihood of twins and siblings having autism. Additionally, recent studies have shown that children born to older parents are at a slightly increased risk of having ASD, as well as children born prematurely.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have reported a number of studies on genetics and autism, which show that researchers may be identifying the genes that are involved in developing autism.
Environmental Risk Factors
A hot topic in today's research on autism is the impact of environmental factors. The CDC has listed certain harmful drugs taken during pregnancy that have been linked with a higher risk of ASD. More studies are underway to further this research.
The media has lots to say on this topic and there are many public figures and scare tactics that warn pregnant mother's and families against certain factors. For example, mercury exposure is often mentioned by the media as a cause for autism, however no study have linked the two to date. Additionally, vaccinations are often warned against for fear of causing autism, however no study (and there are MANY) to date has identified vaccinations to the development of autism.
As you can see, there is no one "cause" for autism, nor is there one warning sign to look for. Autism is a complex disorder that requires further research. We can utilize what we do know, however, to understand and help support those with autism.