Solving the Puzzle of Autism
When Dana Hall's 18-month-old son Cameron was diagnosed with autism, the Bon Ayr, Kentucky mom felt like the floor dropped out from underneath her. "There's nothing worse than realizing that your child has a serious problem. I cried for a week," says Hall. Then she plunged into researching the disorder, and what she read gave her hope. "I found out that getting diagnosed early is one of the best things that can happen," she says. "Early intervention is key."
Many kids with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a range of developmental problems characterized by impaired communication and social interaction skills and repetitive behaviors, aren't identified until age 4 -- or later. While there's no such thing as "too late" to begin receiving treatment for autism, recent research shows that the earlier a child is identified, the more interventions such as speech therapy and behavior training are likely to help.
The disorder that's suddenly everywhere
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as many as 1 in 150 kids have an ASD; in contrast, 15 years ago, the prevalence of autism was believed to be about 1 per 2,000 to 2,500. It's unclear whether the startling rise is due to benign causes -- better detection or a broader definition of autism that includes kids with less severe versions of the disorder -- or something in the environment. "There's lots of research and lots of speculation, but no one really knows," says Amaral.
What is clear is that heredity plays a role, and since autism is a complex disorder (some kids have seizures, some allergies, some have high IQs, some low), most experts believe that different genes are affected in different kids. Greater insight may be on the horizon. The CDC recently launched a $5.9 million study to identify genetic and environmental factors that may increase risk, and the federal government approved additional funding for research of nearly $1 billion over a five-year period.
"I think we're going to find that a number of factors interact to cause the disorder," says Stanley Greenspan, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School in Washington, D.C. "Genetic or prenatal factors might make a child more vulnerable to a virus or environmental toxin."