Critical Autism Spectrum Disorder Research Needed

by PammyMcB

There is a great need for more research on the cause and development of treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorders. In order for one to understand the need for research, one must first understand the affliction. All Autism Spectrum Disorder children experience problems in “1) social interaction 2) verbal and nonverbal communication and 3) repetitive behaviors or interests” (National) often called ‘key interests.’ These children do not follow normal patterns of development. Therefore, it may be possible to detect Autism Spectrum Disorders from birth. They tend to fall behind in communication skills and social skills with parents as well as strangers.

Fortunately, there is a checklist of possible indicators that were identified on the Public Health Training Network Webcast, Autism Among Us:

Possible indicators of Autism Spectrum Disorder:

  • does not babble, point, or make meaningful gestures by one year of age
  • does not speak one word by sixteen months
  • does not combine two words by two years
  • does not respond to name
  • loses language or social skills

Some other indicators:

  • poor eye contact
  • doesn’t seem to know how to play with toys
  • excessively lines up toys or other objects
  • doesn’t smile
  • at times seems to be hearing impaired (National)

Autism Spectrum Disorder is more common in children than diabetes, spinal bifida, and Down Syndrome. Yet, less is heard about Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is estimated that there are two to six per one thousand children affected with the disorder. Therefore, there is a great need for earlier testing. It is common for parents, teachers, and even doctors to overlook Autism Spectrum Disorder because they may feel the child is just a little behind. As with any other medical problem, the earlier the diagnosis, the earlier the treatment can begin. Thus, the sooner the treatment can begin the better the outcome of the child.

Percentages of people afflicted with Autism Spectrum Disorder have recently been on the rise. For instance, in California alone, “autistic disorders has nearly quadrupled since 1987, rising 15 percent in the past three months alone” (Cowley 48) and nationally the percentage “rose by 556 percent during the ‘90s.” (Cowley 48). Because of the steady rise of people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, there is a sense of urgency for a possible cause and cure.

Autism Spectrum Disorders can usually be detected before age three and are sometimes detected as early as eighteen months. Parents usually are the first to notice the strange behavior in their child. I, myself, am a mother of a child diagnosed with this disorder. Damien fit all of the criteria on the above checklist. Like Damien, several Autism Spectrum Disorder children will begin life normally and suddenly withdraw or become silent. Some will even begin to hurt themselves. Pervasive Developmental Disorder or Autism Spectrum Disorder will range from autistic disorder to Asperger Syndrome. The autistic spectrum is a very large spectrum spanning from low functioning to high functioning autism. Low functioning individuals are often institutionalized and unable to live in society. However, those who are high functioning are able to adapt and perform well in society.

It has been speculated that a few well-known cultural icons in history may have been afflicted with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Though many feel they were odd and eccentric, Albert Einstein, Andy Kaufman, and Andy Warhol all were able to adapt to society. Dr. Tony Attwood believes all of these men were long-time sufferers of Autism Spectrum Disorder. While speaking of writer Val Paradiz, Attwood states, “In her memoir, Elijah’s Cup, she theorizes that Andy Warhol, Albert Einstein, and the late comedian Andy Kaufman all suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome.” (87) These three men had many of the same pitfalls that other sufferers of Autism Spectrum Disorder face on a daily basis. These people have many difficulties in engaging “in the give-and-take of everyday human interaction.” (National) They may not mutually relate socially and evade eye contact. They may seem awkward and tend to be loners. Autism Spectrum Disorder children tend to pull away when is doted on. They prefer to not be snuggled and rarely seek solace in stressful situations. Parents have a hard time being able to tell when the child is being affectionate. On the other hand, the children have a hard time distinguishing emotion from others. Because it is hard for them to be able to read faces, they have a difficult time telling whether or not a person is angry, happy, sad, playing, or in pain. Damien often asks me, “Momma, are you happy or sad.” To make matters worse, it is difficult for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder to be able to see things from others’ points of views. These people may also have trouble controlling their emotions. They frequently are disruptive in social situations. They can have a tendency to be physically aggressive. After all of these problems are added together, these people generally find themselves with very few social relationships.

Though the common behaviors of Autism Spectrum Disorder have been identified, there is great uncertainty of a specific cause. Theories on causes range from absolutely absurd to very possible. One such theory is that, “…researchers have found abnormalities in brain structure and function in individuals with autism that may be the result of severe infections during early infancy such as celiac disease, phenylktonuria, encephalitis, meningitis, and tuberous sclerosis; illnesses in the mother such as rubella or cytomegalovirus; or chemical exposure during pregnancy.” (“Autism” 83) Many other researchers have related Autism Spectrum Disorder to Fragile X syndrome. These researchers state that “if a child with ASD also has Fragile X, there is a one-in-two chance that boys born to the same parents will have the syndrome.” (National) Dr. Andrew Wakefield of Britain has other ideas about the cause of Autism Spectrum Disorder. He believes there may be a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Though many parents agree with his study, there is still great controversy due to his findings. However, “Wakefield himself continues to stand by his research…” (“Autism Study”) As stated before, chemicals used to benefit expectant mothers may actually cause harm to the fetus. As Cowley states, “Dr. Eric Hollander of New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine noticed several years ago that 60 percent of the autistic patients in his clinic had been exposed in the womb to pitocin, the synthetic version of a brain chemical (oxytocin) that helps induce labor. “ (52) I feel this may be the cause of Damien’s Autism Spectrum Disorder. My delivery with my son was induced. This included the use of a pitocin drip for a period of twenty-nine and a half-hours before Damien was born. Unfortunately, there is not enough research on the correlation of the use of pitocin and Autism Spectrum Disorder to stop the potential harm to other fetuses. For a matter of fact, there is not enough research on Autism Spectrum Disorders to neither support nor debunk any of these theories. There are many other possible causes of this disorder as well, such as environmental factors. Specific areas of the world have higher percentages of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder that other areas. Until a true cause can be established, a cure cannot be found.

Though there is no cure for Autism Spectrum Disorder, the problem can be treated. It can take years for doctors to find the right cocktail of medications for the treatment. In our case, doctors have been trying to find the right mix of medications for Damien for over four years to date. Many different diagnoses can coincide with Autism Spectrum Disorder; therefore many different medications may be given at once. Often people with this disorder are also diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or impulse control problems such as Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Others are diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, Audio Processing Delays, Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, and Generalized Anxiety Disorders, just to name a few. It is also common for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder to develop seizure disorders, as is the case with Damien. All of these disorders are just a handful that Damien has been diagnosed with over the last 7 ½ years. In order to treat these problems, “Tranquilizers and antidepressants can help ease the anxiety and compulsiveness that autism causes, and stimulants such as Ritalin can help affected kids shift their attention more easily. But no medication can correct the disorder itself, and none is likely to take the place of intensive schooling.” (Cowley 52) Because of this, children may have to take many different medications at one time. Parents do not like to see their children on so many medications with many possible, harmful side effects. I know that I do not. Damien is only nine years old and must take seven different medications daily so that he can function properly. He must endure an over abundance of stressful blood tests as well.

The need for more research and a cure is very great. Autism Spectrum Disorder affects many children that cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, right from wrong, happy from sad, and pain from comfort. With more research, these children could live more healthy, happy, and ordinary lives.

Works Cited

Attwood, Dr. Tony. “Albert Einstein, Andy Kaufman, and Andy Warhol: The Controversial Disorder They May Have Shared.” Biography Magazine. Dec. 2003: 86-88,114.

“Autism.” ASHA. May 1994: 83.

“Autism Study Branded ‘Poor Science’.”  Reuters. 23 Feb. 2004 <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4352771/print/1/displaymode/1098/&gt;

Cowley, Geoffrey. “Understanding Autism.” Newsweek. 31 July 2000: 46-54.

National Institute of Mental Health. Autism Spectrum Disorders (Pervasive Developmental Disorders). <http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/autism.cfm&gt;

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