What you Need to Know About Autism and Some of the Leading Edge Research

What you Need to Know About Autism and Some of the Leading Edge Research

By: Stetson T. Thacker, PhD • Posted on August 26, 2016

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has ensnared the hearts and minds of many parents with fear. Many have watched as their seemingly normal children regress socially and cognitively. Possibly, the most tragic aspect of an autism diagnosis is that parents are left wondering why their child has autism, often lashing out at the media's latest scapegoat for autism. All of the visits to doctors, psychologists, therapists and other specialists rarely, if ever satisfactorily answer the question of why. Unfortunately, this is just where the research on autism is right now.

The Causes of Autism

The honest and responsible answer to give when talking about causes of autism is that there are no single cause. However, there are certain rare forms of syndromic autism, such as Rett syndrome and fragile X syndrome, where we have some knowledge about how the genetic changes causing the syndrome can contribute to the development of autism.

The Latest Autism Research

I personally study a rare form of autism that can arise when an individual is born with a mutation in a gene called PTEN. The lab I perform research in has developed a mouse model of this rare form of autism, and we are studying this autism mouse with the goal of determining how the mutation in PTEN can lead to autism. There are other scientists like us who are hard at work to see what from the study of rare forms of autism can be extrapolated to the common form of idiopathic autism.

And while the medical community has not definitively identified a single cause for autism, especially because the genetic picture of autism is so complex, we do have a growing handle on some important risk factors.

Autism Risk Factors

Those known risk factors for autism include:

  1. Family History Of Autism (Genetics)
    • Twin studies have demonstrated that autism is highly heritable
    • Research has observed a dramatically increased risk for those who have siblings with autism
  2. Prenatal and Perinatal Complications
    • Advanced maternal and paternal age
    • Maternal gestational diabetes
    • Bleeding during the first trimester
    • Use of Valproate during pregnancy (an antipsychotic drug) that can affect folate metabolism
    • Maternal inflammation from infection during pregnancy
  3. Biological Sex
    • Autism is four times more common in boys than girls

Unfortunately, many of the risk factors for autism are not modifiable. Although, women delaying child bearing need to know about the increasing risk of genetic problems with advanced pregnancy age.

Good Prenatal Care Can Help Reduce Autism Risk

Excellent prenatal care and adequate folate ingestion prior to conception and early in pregnancy is known to reduce the following neural tube defects:

  • Spina Bifida
  • Anencephaly
  • Autism

In addition to prenatal care, the next best course of action is to help support scientists and the medical community in their research of autism spectrum disorder. We all hope and pray for breakthroughs that will illuminate the causes and develop treatments to at least improve some of the symptoms of autism and the good news is with appropriate therapy many persons with the autism spectrum disorder can function independently and successfully.

Be Strong. Be Healthy. Be in Charge!

-Stetson T. Thacker, PhD

Stetson Thacker holds a PhD in Molecular Medicine from Case Western Reserve University. He studies PTEN mutation as an inherited risk factor for autism spectrum disorders and cancer at the Lerner Research Institute. Stetson's research can be found at his ORCID page or his Google Scholar profile. You can follow Stetson on Twitter at @stetson_thacker.

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