Sunday, October 15, 2006

Etiology and Causes of Autism

The causes of autism are mostly a mystery. It is really difficult to tell what caused autism in each and every individual with autism. There is no known way yet to prevent autism from occurring. Similarly to Cancer, Autism is now thought to be many different diseases, set off by different causes, yet presenting certain similarities between the different cases of autism.

The term Autism was coined in the early 1940’s by Dr. Leo Kanner. Kanner defined the state in which schizophrenic patients behaved in a withdrawn manner, as autism. Throughout the 40’s until the 60’s, the medical community believed that children who presented autistic behaviours in fact had schizophrenia, and they also believed that it was a result of bad parenting and lack of bonding between the child and the mother (or the other caregivers). Of course this did not make parents feel too good about themselves and did not provide them with the tools to help their children.

Thankfully, this theory and approach was tossed out and replaced by others – and more importantly – a better understanding of the autistic mind and emotional state has been achieved. We may not know the exact causes for autism, but at least we know about a few things we can do to help autistic children to develop into their full potential as adults and decrease their suffering.

The rate of children diagnosed with autism is escalating: autism used to be found only in 1 child in 10,000. Six years ago, the rate was one to 1,000, and that has doubled into 1 every 500 children. Autism is now an epidemic judging by the numbers… However, some of the increase can be accounted for by the fact that the parameters for diagnosis have changes several times in the past decade.

The causes for autism could be one or more of the following:

There is no one gene that is known to cause autism. However, siblings to children with autism are more likely to present symptoms of autism than siblings of children without autism. Scientists hope, of course, to be able to prevent certain types of genetically caused autism (for instance: a research I recently read was about immune-system rejection in pregnant woman, that may have caused autism in their child; there may be a cure for that with adequate diagnosis prior to pregnancy and treatment during pregnancy to prevent the immune-system rejection of the embryo.

Environmental Causes
It is possible, though not proven, that certain children are pre-disposed at birth to have autism, and certain stimuli from the environment in infancy and early childhood bring out the symptoms.

Pollution and Exposure to Toxins
The many toxins in our environment could be the cause for autism. There is some research about connection between vaccines and autism, but it is not confirmed yet that vaccines cause autism. The scope of the effect of pollution is yet to be discovered…

Links to Other Conditions
Autism in some individuals is linked to other medical conditions, i.e.: Metabolic Disorders (i.e.: untreated Phenylketonuria), Congenital Infections, Genetyic Disorders (Fragile X, Tuberous Sclerosis), Dvelopmental Brain Abnormalities, and certain neurological disorders that can happen after birth. Also it might be linked to certain conditions in which the digestive system cannot break down certain enzymes, and these act as neurotransmitters which affect the development of the brain and its functions permanently.

There also seem to be a link between repeated ear infection and use of antibiotics, and the development of autism. There is a theory that the lining of the stomach gets affected by the antibiotics in a way that prevents the digestive system to properly break down certain proteins – and in return, a similar effect to what was described above may occur (i.e. proteins act as neurotransmitters and damage the brain and the nervous system).

The Right Brain Connection
Individuals with autism seem to have a dominant “right brain” which is quite obvious in the way in which they think. They also seem to process language in a different part of the brain than most people do. Autistic people are a lot more detail oriented, and have difficulty in understanding and developing symbols. Autistic people also have a larger brain than normal people. The brain seems to be swollen, especially in the front lobe and side lobes (which might explain why my daughter likes a lot of pressure on her head and forehead – perhaps it eases the brain pain?). We don’t know if the large brain causes autism, or is caused by autism. But we know that autistic people have a larger brain and that it’s not easy to live with a brain that is too large for the side of your skull!

An interesting theory I heard of only recently is that autism is caused by excessive release of testosterone in the mother’s blood stream during pregnancy (which is said to be caused by stress), and this causes autism (which also, interestingly, is described by the same researcher as an exaggerated form of “male brain”).

There are many theories, but none has been proven beyond doubt and to be honest – these are still to provide any satisfactory conclusion that will really make a significant change in the life, treatment, education or quality of living of autistic individuals and their families. We are still waiting for this to happen!

Online Resources about Causes for Autism

Next Week:
How to Deal with Diagnosis - The 5 Stages of Loss

Autism Treatment and Therapy

P.s. Please note that none of this short article is in any way scientific. I am just trying to summarize the many thing that I read, heard and learned during my almost decade of autistic motherhood… If you want the real nitty gritty research stuff, numbers and arguments – you can easily find them online or in your nearest university. I also do not intend on arguing about the causes of autism. I don’t have any theory. All I know is that none of theories really explains to me why my daughter has autism, and none is particularly helpful in finding ways to cure her or help her… I am thankful for the many educators and therapists, that with years of experience, have developed plenty of highly effective methods of educating children such as my daughter and helping them to become the best person they can be.

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