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New Autism Research: Social Struggles & Increase in Diagnoses Explained

The Short of It

Two new autism studies may reveal why the diagnosis rate has increased so dramatically, and what may cause autistic children to struggle with social skills.

The Lowdown

In a paper published Wednesday in the "American Journal of Medical Genetics," researchers say the three-fold increase in autism diagnoses among students in special education programs from 2000 to 2010 is actually due to the recent reclassification of individuals with other, related intellectual disability disorders. This is the first study to make this direct link.

Their analysis is a result of studying 11 years of special-education enrollment data, which is a staggering 6.2 million kids each year.

Perhaps most convincing is that researchers identified an almost equal decrease in students diagnosed with other intellectual disabilities, many of which can co-occur with autism. About 59 percent of the observed increase can be explained by reclassification for 8-year-olds, but that number is 97 percent by age 15!

Researchers point out that since autism overlaps with other, similar disorders, it can be hard to diagnose.

"Every individual can show a different combination of features. The tricky part is how to deal with individuals who have multiple diagnoses because the set of features that define autism is commonly found in individuals with other cognitive or neurological deficits," explains lead researcher Santhosh Girirajan.

Meanwhile, a second study from the Stanford University School of Medicine looked at the relationship between the hormone vasopressin and the social impairment of autistic individuals. A brain-chemistry deficit of the hormone may be to blame for the difficulties.

The research, which was published this week in PLOS ONE, looked at 159 kids, ages 3 to 12. Some of them have autism; some don't, but are growing up with an autistic sibling; and some who aren't growing up with an autistic sibling. They found that low levels of vasopressin, which controls social behavior, was associated with kids' inability to have empathy for others or form social relationships.

"Autistic children who had the lowest vasopressin levels in their blood also had the greatest social impairment," explains senior author, Karen Parker, PhD.

The Upshot

This new research offers promise that treatment with vasopressin may help improve social issues for autistic kids. Clinical trials to test this theory are going on already. But researchers are quick to note that the hormone deficit is not the only factor behind social impairment in individuals who suffer from the disorder.

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