Updates in Autism Research

When exploring prevalence and frequency of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), one of the reasons cited for the increase in diagnoses comes from our advances in research and understanding of autism. We are seeing more ASD now, because we know more, and some of the historical mysteries surrounding behavior, relationships, and communication are better explained by our breadth of knowledge about the spectrum.

As we understand more, more questions arise as well. Current ASD prevalence rates indicate that 1 in every 59 children in the United States have ASD. Boys continue to have a four times higher likelihood of diagnosis, though there is increasing understanding that females on the spectrum may be missed, or misdiagnosed.

Increasingly, the questions center on the causes of autism. With continuously increasing prevalence, and an understanding that the costs of autism treatment over a lifetime can come close to $2 million per individual, these questions make sense. We know what doesn’t cause autism. Vaccines unequivocally are not to blame – and the dangerous claims that have since been debunked have created a public health crisis threatening overall immunity. Other theories surrounding environmental causes – among them, that the increase in plastics, fertilizer, or general climate change are to blame – have not had much evidence to support these theories. We do, however, know that there is a genetic link, impacting approximately 20% of diagnosed  ASD cases. Genetic science is still new, and likely as more is understood about genetic factors, that percentage will increase.

Questions also arise about appropriate and evidence-based treatment. Because the spectrum is so vast, with functioning varying within communities, within families, and within a person themselves, that question can be tricky to answer. Behavioral treatment, from the strongly supported with research Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to more traditional talk therapy techniques, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) can help, though these modalities are person specific, and not universally applied. There is no specific medication for autism, but many pharmacological treatments that target symptoms ranging from aggression, depression, anxiety, or related health concerns such as sleep and gastrointestinal distress are often used in conjunction with a behavioral team. A focus on language and the practical, social use of communication (pragmatic language) is also a helpful treatment modality to some with ASD.

We have known for some time that early intervention is one of the best predictors of outcomes for individuals with ASD. Reliable and accurate diagnoses can occur between 18 months to 2 years of age – a critical period for social and language development. There is also growing understanding and acceptance of the strengths and diversity among the ASD population. The neurodiversity movement speaks to the ethics of autism treatment – that many high functioning individuals would not want a cure should one be found and that our communities are benefited by accepting and understanding the strengths of those with ASD.

The future for those with ASD, and the future of the understanding and science of the spectrum is still unknown. With the proper diagnosis, understanding of strengths and limitations, and a collaborative and individualized treatment approach, the prognosis is much more optimistic. The research continues to grow, and our understanding continues to expand. In the meantime, if you need help navigating the complexity of the autism spectrum, contact us! We can help.