Autism used to come with certain images of antisocial, even violent behavior and ideas of pure genius locked in mental isolation. Early research was incomplete and inconsistent, leading to shocking conclusions which are now debunked, such as the idea that autism was a result of a parenting failure. Thankfully, since the 1970s it has been accepted that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a problem of neurodevelopment and that appropriate interventions lead to improvements and better quality of life for the impacted families. Joint efforts of private and government funding on ASD research bring new findings.
1. Early Signs of Autism
The most common problem of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder is finding an appropriate way to communicate with their family. Since autism tends to run in families, another study focused on baby siblings of such families in order to observe any differences between them and non-autistic children. In the second year of infants’ lives, the researchers correlated the overgrowths of babies’ brains to the severity of autism symptoms. The bigger the overgrowth, the more severe the symptoms were in children. This study relied heavily on the well-known fact among psychologists that not looking at people’s eyes and mouth is an early sign of autism in children who would later develop it. Now the scientists also confirmed that such behavior is inscribed in the genes and puts more emphasis on early social interventions.
Another predictor seemed to be an increased cerebrospinal fluid in the brains of babies who later developed autism. As a follow up to an earlier study, Mark Shen confirmed that the amount of cerebrospinal fluid is an early biomarker of ASD. It is unclear whether this symptom has anything to do with inflammation or if it is genetic, so further research is needed.
2. ASD Related Genetic Mutations
The ongoing struggle that genetic engineers face is to pinpoint the exact genes which are responsible for autism spectrum disorder and whose mutations affect the developing brains of children. Using the method of whole-genome sequencing of families with ASD, researchers recently managed to identify 18 new possible genes to blame. A related study took a look at 16,000 international participants and noticed a transcription factor in certain genes which has a role in neural changes. Not surprising, these are the same ones related to social skills. Moreover, the researchers identified a strong genetic overlapping with troubling regions of the gene in cases of schizophrenia.
3. Long-Term Benefits of Early Parental Intervention
A study by pediatric psychiatrist Jonathan Green focused on younger siblings of families with a higher risk of autism spectrum disorder. Participating parents videotaped interactions with their toddlers at home and revised them with professionals to gain advice on how to adapt their behavior, in order to better communicate with their children. The children who participated ended up having better IQ and social skills, like maintaining eye contact and also greater social responsiveness. The targeted participants were very young, up to 3 years of age, and provided important data on how brains of affected children respond better to empathic than directive parental guidance. The researchers hope to complete further studies with more children in order to confirm their findings.
4. Research into Medication
All these findings confirm the importance of neuroimaging, neuropsychological tests and genetic research with all autistic individuals and their families. Further clinical research could compare the findings with study results of other neurodevelopment disorders in hopes of noticing any similarities or patterns. Finally, while most autistic children have some more or less severe communication problems such as speaking impairments, the most commonly researched medications are those for externalizing behaviors such as irritability and aggression. It may sound disheartening but there are no known cures for any neuropsychiatric diseases, so the goal of medication is only to improve the quality of life of those impacted.
No two cases of autism are the same, hence the name autism spectrum disorder. It therefore makes sense that there isn’t a single cure, rather each child needs to be examined individually and have specifically targeted interventions, with an absolute must of parental and family involvement. However, the continuing funding into research does give hope that families at risk will be able to notice early predictors and learn to cope with the newfound situation appropriately.
About the Author
Rachel Fink is a mom of 7 and contributor at Parenting Pod. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Science and Engineering and enjoys to share her expertise and experience on a variety of topics.
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