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What Causes Autism Regression?

Explore the autism regression causes, from genetics to early life events. Understand, detect, and cope effectively.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
February 27, 2024
9 min read
min read

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex and pervasive condition that affects numerous individuals worldwide. To better comprehend the topic of autism regression causes, it's crucial to first gain a basic understanding of ASD itself.

Defining Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is defined as a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments in social interaction, communication, and the presence of behavioral disorders that recur with atypical or narrow interest. This disorder affects a significant number of people, with a worldwide prevalence estimated to be 1-2 per 1000 individuals.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Symptoms

The manifestation of ASD symptoms typically occurs between 12 and 18 months of age. However, sensory and motor symptoms often surface earlier, during the first 12 months. Notably, some children may experience a loss of previously developed abilities between 18 and 24 months, a phenomenon referred to as regression. Early detection and intensive interventions are vital for reducing the impact of symptoms on a child's functioning [1].

Potential symptoms of autism in babies aged between 6 and 12 months may include a lack of response to their names, poor eye gaze, decreased shared attention, and narrow usage of deictic gestures. These sensorial and motor deviations often precede socio-communication disorders and restrictive behaviors that more clearly indicate Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Children with severe ASD symptoms exhibit more social deficits in communication and interactions, and show increased restricted and repetitive behaviors compared to children with milder ASD symptoms. Language deficits and delays in language development are typical for children with ASD and can vary significantly from child to child.

Repetitive behaviors can be detected at early ages, often before deficits in social communication. These behaviors do not reduce over time and can influence development. Language deficits in children with ASD include semantic, syntactic, and phonological deficits, as well as compromised pragmatic use of language [1].

Unraveling the nature of Autism Spectrum Disorder and its symptoms is crucial to understanding the causes of autism regression. This knowledge is instrumental in early detection and intervention, ultimately improving the quality of life for those affected by ASD.

Occurrence of Regression in Autism

Regression, characterized by a loss or plateau of previously acquired skills, is a phenomenon that occurs in a significant number of individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This section explores how regression in autism is identified and its prevalence.

Identifying Regression in Autism

Identifying regression in autism involves observing for noticeable losses or plateaus in early acquired skills. According to ScienceDirect, these symptoms of autism regression typically emerge between 15-30 months of age in children diagnosed with ASD. The regression can involve loss of language and social skills, which were previously present.

Interestingly, SPARK for Autism points out that children who would later be diagnosed with autism often exhibit declines or changes in their developmental progress between ages 1 and 2. Many of these declines can be subtle, often going unnoticed by most people, rather than being dramatic instances of regression.

Prevalence of Regression in Autism

The prevalence of regression in autism is higher than previously thought. Autism Parenting Magazine reports that between 15 and 40 percent of children with ASD experience some type of regressive behavior, with some showing a sudden onset of symptoms around age 4.

Furthermore, NCBI states that approximately one-third of children with ASD reportedly lose skills within the first three years, with regression-case status defined as both language loss and social-skill loss at or before the age of 36 months.

New studies cited by SPARK for Autism suggest that regression in children with autism may be more common than previously thought, with some researchers arguing that regression may be the rule rather than the exception.

The understanding of autism regression and its causes continues to evolve, with ongoing research shedding new light on this complex phenomenon. Early detection and intervention remain key in managing regression and supporting the developmental progress of children with ASD.

Known Factors Influencing Autism Regression

The causes of autism regression are complex and multifactorial, with genetic, environmental, and medical conditions playing intricate roles in the regression process. Although the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, research has identified several potential factors that may contribute to regression in autism.

Genetic Factors

Genetic factors have been associated with autism regression. Mutations in genes involved in neurodevelopmental pathways, synaptic function, and immune response have been linked to the regression process. A study cited by NCBI found that mutations in essential genes showed a trend towards increased rates of regression compared to children with mutations to other genes. However, the intricate relationship between these genetic factors and autism regression is still a subject of ongoing research.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors have also been implicated in autism regression. Potential environmental contributors include oxidative stress due to exposure to heavy metals, poor nutrition, and folate deficiency. Maternal immune activation during pregnancy has also been suggested as a potential environmental factor contributing to autism regression.

Early life events, such as preterm birth, fetal distress, neonatal hypoxia, and exposure to toxic substances during fetal development have also been proposed as risk factors for autism regression [2]. These early environmental factors can significantly impact the development of the brain and potentially trigger regression in children with autism.

Medical Conditions

Medical conditions, specifically inflammatory and autoimmunity mechanisms, have been proposed as potential contributors to autism regression [2].

Certain medical conditions and physiological changes can potentially alter the brain's developmental trajectory, leading to regression in children with autism. These may include autoimmune disorders, metabolic disorders, and other conditions that affect the brain and nervous system. However, more research is needed to understand the exact relationship between these medical conditions and autism regression.

In conclusion, the causes of autism regression are multifaceted and complex, involving a combination of genetic, environmental, and medical factors. A better understanding of these factors can help in the development of targeted interventions and treatments for children with autism who experience regression.

The Role of Early Life Events in Autism

Early life events, both prenatal and postnatal, have considerable influence on the development of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and can contribute to the occurrence of regression in children with ASD. Understanding these risk factors can help in the early identification and intervention of autism regression.

Prenatal Risk Factors

Prenatal factors largely involve maternal health and the environment the mother is exposed to during pregnancy. Maternal factors such as maternal age, maternal health, prenatal exposure to alcohol, maternal obesity, and maternal infection during pregnancy have been linked to an increased risk of autism spectrum disorder in offspring. A study also showed that parental age at conception, especially advanced paternal age, is associated with an increased risk of autism spectrum disorder in children [3].

Exposure to environmental toxins such as air pollution, pesticides, heavy metals, and maternal smoking during pregnancy has been identified as potential risk factors for autism spectrum disorder. Specifically, maternal viral infections, such as rubella, measles, mumps, chicken pox, and influenza, during the first trimester of pregnancy, as well as bacterial infections in the second trimester, increase the risk of autism in the embryo [4].

Research further suggests that a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental factors contribute to the development of autism spectrum disorder, with environmental factors playing a more significant role.

Early Childhood Events

Early childhood events also play a role in the development of autism and the occurrence of regression. Factors such as preterm birth, fetal distress, neonatal hypoxia, and exposure to toxic substances during fetal development have also been proposed as risk factors for autism regression.

Potential environmental factors implicated in autism regression include oxidative stress due to exposure to heavy metals, poor nutrition, folate deficiency, and maternal immune activation during pregnancy. Genetic factors associated with autistic regression include mutations in genes involved in neurodevelopmental pathways, synaptic function, and immune response.

In summary, both prenatal and early childhood factors play a significant role in the development of autism. Early detection of these factors and subsequent intervention can help in managing autism regression and improving the quality of life of children with ASD.

Coping with Autism Regression

Understanding and managing autism regression entails both early detection and intervention, which are key in mitigating the impact of regression on a child's development.

Importance of Early Detection

Research suggests that regression in children with autism may be more common than previously thought, with some researchers arguing that regression may be the rule rather than the exception, and often begins before noticeable by most people [5]. Children who would later be diagnosed with autism often exhibit declines or changes in their developmental progress between ages 1 and 2, with many of these declines being subtle rather than dramatic stories of regression.

A study conducted at the University of California Davis focused on the social skills of infancy in babies who would later be diagnosed with autism, showing a decline in behaviors like gazing at faces, smiling, and making eye contact between 6 and 12 months of age. These observations underscore the importance of early detection in managing autism regression.

Early Intervention and Treatment

Despite advances in early diagnosis and intervention, no therapy has been proven to completely reverse the core symptoms of autism. The only treatment in ameliorating the core behavioral deficits is early intensive behavioral and educational interventional therapy.

Children who receive early intensive behavioral treatment have been shown to make substantial, sustained gains in IQ, language, academic performance, and adaptive behavior as well as some measures of social behavior, with outcomes significantly better than those of children in control groups. A meta-analysis examining the efficacy of ABA interventions for young children with autism showed medium to large positive effects on intellectual functioning, language development, daily living skills acquisition, and social functioning, with larger effect sizes observed on language-related outcomes.

For very young children, including infants and toddlers, parental involvement is central to autism treatment. Early intervention programs need to take place in "natural learning environments" such as the home, where parents are actively involved in implementing the concepts they've learned.

Very early intervention programs show promise in mitigating the severity of autism or potentially preventing the disorder from manifesting at all. However, current methods can only identify at-risk babies and do not offer a definitive diagnosis, presenting ethical challenges.

As such, while the quest to fully understand the autism regression causes continues, early detection and intervention remain the most effective strategies for managing autism regression and improving the quality of life for children with autism and their families.

Research on Autism Regression

Investigations into the causes of autism regression have been extensive, revealing new insights and perspectives. This research has been instrumental in helping professionals and families understand and deal with this complex condition.

Scientific Studies and Findings

Recent studies suggest that regression in children with autism may be more common than previously believed. Some researchers now argue that regression may typically occur in autism, often commencing before it is noticeable by most people.

Research has demonstrated that children who later receive an autism diagnosis often show declines or alterations in their developmental progress between ages 1 and 2. Many of these declines are subtle, rather than dramatic episodes of regression.

One study carried out at the University of California Davis centered on the social skills of infants who would later be diagnosed with autism. The study revealed a decrease in behaviors like gazing at faces, smiling, and making eye contact between 6 and 12 months of age.

Prospective studies, which measure a child's skills as they emerge instead of months or years afterward, have been launched to understand when and how autism appears. These studies observe infants from infancy to age 3 [5].

Future Direction of Research

The search for the causes behind autism regression continues, with genetics being a significant area of interest. Researchers are examining the potential influence of genetics in autism regression by studying genetic conditions associated with both autism and skill loss. Variations in genes active during later developmental periods have been linked with a greater likelihood of regression in children with autism [5].

The research into autism regression causes is a rapidly evolving field. The findings from these studies will not only enhance our understanding of autism but also aid in the development of more effective interventions and support systems for individuals with autism and their families.

References

[1]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9857540/

[2]: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fncel.2019.00385

[3]: https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/environmental-risk-autism-explained/

[4]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5377970/

[5]: https://sparkforautism.org/discover_article/autism-regression/

[6]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5733418/

[7]: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/autism-early-intervention/

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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