Published On: Fri, Apr 5th, 2013

The Autism Spectrum……A Major Epidemic in Kids

boyautism-By Kristie Leong, MD

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a general term for a group of disorders characterized by problems with brain development. One of these disorders, autistic disorder, is marked by abnormal social skills, difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication, and, in many cases, compulsive behaviors and repetitive rituals. Other less severe forms of this complex group of conditions include Asperger’s syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder and childhood disintegrative disorder. 

 Is the Number of Autism Cases Rising?

The number of children diagnosed with ASD has increased over the past two years. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of children with autism has risen 78% over the last 10 years. Today, 1 in every 110 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder! —-Even more disturbing, no one knows why!

Some experts believe this rise is due to an increased awareness of the disease and better diagnosis – but is that the full explanation?

According to data released by the ADDM network, a network sponsored by the CDC to track the number of children with autism spectrum disorders, the greatest increase in new autism cases was among Hispanic and black children, although white children have a higher incidence of autism overall.

When they tracked the number of cases in eight-years olds, the state with the lowest reported number of cases was Alabama, where 1 in 210 children was diagnosed with an ASD. The highest incidence was in Utah where 1 in 47 eight-year olds carried an autism diagnosis

Why Are Autism Cases on the Rise?

Greater awareness and better diagnosis may explain some of the increases in autism, but there are concerns that something in the environment may also play a major role. We live in a “sea of chemicals” and pollutants that we breathe, eat and apply to our skin. Could something in the environment that women are exposed to during pregnancy be responsible?

Exposure to certain chemicals or other toxins during fetal development can disrupt normal brain development and trigger autism, although exactly what chemicals might be involved haven’t been identified. Some possibilities include pesticides, heavy metals, car exhaust, and PCBs and phthalates in plastic products, although no link between these toxins and autism has been proven.

Interestingly, one study showed a higher incidence of autism among children living within a 10 to 20 mile radius of a toxic waste site.

Another area of focus has been on vaccines. At one time, a mercury compound called thimerosal was added to vaccines as a preservative.

In 1999, thimerosal was removed, or greatly reduced, in vaccines with no reduction in autism rates. Instead, the number of autistic cases have continued to rise.

The MMR vaccine, (the immunization vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella), was also scrutinized as a possible factor after a study showed a link. That has since been discredited after it was discovered that the researchers falsified the data!

Thus far, researchers haven’t been able to prove a link between autism and vaccines.

The Role of Genetics in Autism

It appears that autism has a genetic basis.

Siblings of kids with autism are 25 times more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder themselves, but there doesn’t seem to be a single gene to explain this.

Instead, an interaction between multiple genes and the environment [most likely] explains the heritability of autism.

Boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder than girls.

Autism is a complex set of disorders, and research into its causes is still in its infancy.

Although there are still many questions yet to be answered, early diagnosis is important since it can improve a child’s prognosis.

Children with autism are usually normal at birth, but subtle abnormalities may appear during the first year of life.

In the United States, kids are screened at 18 months and 24 months of age using screening tests, but parents may be able to pick up subtle signs earlier that a child is not developing normally.

Some signs of autism may be that the child is not responding to a smile,  not gesturing, nor babbling by 12 months of age. Parents should always report these signs to a doctor.

The Bottom Line?

Autism is a complex set of disorders that are still a mystery from many standpoints. Hopefully, further research will shed light on autism and why this developmental abnormality that affects so many children is on the rise…and…how we can stop the devastating impact it has on families.

References:

MMWR. 2012; 61:1-24.
Medscape Medical News. “Autism Prevalence Up 78% in the U.S.
WebMD. “Autism/MMR Vaccine Study Faked: FAQ”
The Daily Green. “Higher Rates of Autism Found Near Toxic Waste Sites”
Centers for Disease Control. “Autism Spectrum Disorders”

 

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