Autism Rates Still on the Rise

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During Autism Awareness month now, in April, let’s consider the autistic spectrum — some research, characteristics, and implications of this diagnosis.

April has been designated Autism Awareness month in many countries, including the U.S., and April 2nd was the 5th World Autism Awareness Day. Interest in autism has piqued in recent years because of the alarming increase in the rates of diagnosis during the past five decades. The latest U.S. government statistics indicate that the rate of incidence for an autistic spectrum disorder has risen to 1 in 88 — almost double the rate just 10 years ago. Such alarming rates have spurred considerable research into the phenomenon, and that research is beginning to yield some interesting findings.

A study conducted at the University of California at Davis, and recently published in the journal, Pediatrics, found that the risk of a diagnosis of autism in a child increased 70 percent for mothers who were at least 35 lbs overweight during their pregnancies. And, while the risks of various childhood diseases were all somewhat greater for overweight mothers, the risk of having an autistic child was markedly greater, suggesting that maternal metabolic factors play a significant role in the development of this disorder. Interestingly, obesity during pregnancy appeared to contribute dramatically (an over 200 percent increase) to the risk for various other developmental disorders.

Other recent research has begun to shed some light on genetic factors that might play a role in autism. A study recently published in the American Journal of Human Genetics found, after analyzing the genes of 1600 autistic subjects, that an alteration of the SHANK1 gene was linked to the development of autism in boys. Scientists have known for some time that the rate of autism is almost four times higher in boys than in girls, but they have been at a loss to explain why. The findings involving the SHANK1 gene might help solve the riddle — when a critical mutation of this gene was tracked through several generations, only the males carrying the genetic mutation developed autism. And the finding might also help solve some of the riddles about the causes of the disorder itself. That’s because the SHANK1 gene is instrumental in the formation of neuronal synapses, the critical parts of our nerve cells that enable the ‘communication’ between them. But while this genetic mutation might help explain the development of autism, the role of genes in autism is an enormously complicated subject. At last count, researchers have discovered anywhere from 400, to possibly even 1600 genes, gene mutations, or gene-influenced protein formation abnormalities that might play some role in autism.

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Much of the increase in the diagnosis of autism is the result of greatly improved detection methods and increased understanding of the nature of all developmental disorders. Like the other developmental disorders, autism is now seen as part of a broad spectrum of conditions that vary considerably with respect to quality and severity. It’s mostly characterized by significant behavioral, social, and most especially, communications delays. Some of the most important signs of the disorder, according to the valuable web resource, Autism Speaks, include:

  • no smiles or other displays of emotions or joy in infants 6 months or older,
  • no back-and-forth interaction or sharing of sounds in infants 9 months or older,
  • no words by 16 months,
  • no two-word phrases by 24 months.

As any parent of an autistic child knows, early diagnosis and intervention is key to helping any developmentally-delayed child integrate socially. Unfortunately though, even with all the advances that have been made in recent years, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, the vast majority of cases are still not properly diagnosed until after 4 years of age.

A while back, there was a great debate about whether multiple childhood immunizations, especially those derived from formulas that had mercury in their bases, was the reason for the dramatic increase in autism over the past several decades. Now, it’s becoming abundantly clear not only that vaccines are probably not the cause, but also that there will be no simple answer to the riddle of autism. A wide variety of genetic, genetically-influenced, and environmental factor all appear to play roles in developmental disorders, including the autistic spectrum disorders. And if rates continue to rise, the already substantial pressure on families, schools, and the health care system will only increase. That’s why it’s crucial that funding for research, even in our tough economic times, remains strong.

To learn more about autism and related spectrum disorders, visit Autism Speaks, the National Autism Association, or the Autism Science Foundation.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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