How Do People Get Autism: Unearthing the Causes

Discover how people get autism, from genetic factors to early intervention, in our comprehensive guide.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
April 25, 2024
9 min read
min read

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurological and developmental condition that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. The understanding of how people get autism is still evolving, but current research points to a combination of genetic and environmental factors contributing to its development. The role of vaccines in autism has also been a topic of discussion.

Genetic and Environmental Factors

Autism is a multifaceted disorder resulting from the interplay of genetic and environmental factors. Extensive studies have identified specific genetic variants that contribute to the development of autism. However, evidence also supports a significant role of environmental factors in increasing autism risk.

According to the Mayo Clinic, both genetics and the environment may play a role in the development of autism, but there isn't a single known cause. Certain factors during pregnancy have been linked to an increased risk, such as infections, severe illnesses like influenza, and hospitalizations. Women with autoimmune diseases are also at an elevated risk of having a child with autism, as certain immune molecules can affect gene expression and brain development relevant to autism [2]. Exposure to the drug valproate during pregnancy, used to treat bipolar disorder and epilepsy, is also known to increase the risk of autism [2].

Role of Vaccines

The role of vaccines in the development of autism has been a topic of considerable debate. However, despite extensive research, no reliable study has shown a link between autism spectrum disorder and any vaccines. The original study that sparked the debate years ago has been retracted due to poor design and questionable research methods [3].

Understanding the causes of autism is crucial for early detection and intervention. The ongoing research in this field continues to provide valuable insights into the intricate interplay of genetic and environmental factors in the development of this disorder.

Risk Factors for Autism

While the exact cause of autism is still not fully understood, several risk factors have been identified that can increase the likelihood of developing this condition. These include aspects of the maternal immune system, exposure to certain drugs during pregnancy, and certain environmental factors.

Maternal Immune System

The maternal immune system plays a significant role in the risk of autism. Infections, severe illnesses like influenza, and hospitalizations during pregnancy have been linked to an increased risk of autism in a child. Women with autoimmune diseases are also at an elevated risk of having an autistic child, and certain immune molecules can affect gene expression and brain development relevant to autism.

Maternal Immune System Factor Increased Autism Risk
Infections during Pregnancy Yes
Severe Illnesses like Influenza Yes
Hospitalizations during Pregnancy Yes
Autoimmune Diseases Yes

Valproate Exposure

Exposure to the drug valproate during pregnancy, which is used to treat bipolar disorder and epilepsy, is known to increase the risk of autism and a variety of birth defects. The exposure to this drug during crucial stages of brain development may interfere with the normal processes, leading to an increased risk of autism [2].

Drug Increased Autism Risk
Valproate Yes

Air Pollution Exposure

There is growing evidence that exposure to air pollution during gestation or early life can increase a child’s risk of autism. The specific components of air pollution involved are still under investigation, but the overall risk due to environmental factors is becoming more clear.

Environmental Factor Increased Autism Risk
Air Pollution Yes

Exploring these risk factors can help in understanding how individuals develop autism. However, it's important to note that these factors do not guarantee that a child will develop autism, but rather, they increase the likelihood. It's also crucial to remember that many children develop autism without any known risk factors, indicating that our understanding of this complex disorder is still evolving.

Protective Factors and Prevention

While the exact causes of autism are not known, research suggests that certain factors might help reduce the risk of developing autism. These factors include taking certain vitamins during pregnancy and ensuring that children receive their recommended vaccinations.

Vitamin D and Folic Acid

Some studies suggest that consuming specific vitamins during pregnancy might help lower the baby's risk of autism. In particular, taking vitamin D and folic acid, also known as vitamin B-9, has been associated with a decreased risk. However, it's important to note that the evidence is not definitive, and further research is needed to confirm these findings. Nonetheless, taking these vitamins during pregnancy is generally recommended for overall maternal and fetal health.

Vitamin Autism Risk Reduction
Vitamin D Possible Reduction
Folic Acid (Vitamin B-9) Possible Reduction

Vaccination Safety

There's a common misconception that vaccinations might be linked to the development of autism. However, extensive research conducted over the last two decades has found no evidence to support this claim. In fact, routine vaccinations given during pregnancy, such as those against influenza and whooping cough, do not appear to increase autism risk. Similarly, childhood vaccines are not linked to autism. The research that previously suggested such a causal link has been discredited as fraudulent.

The timing of an autism diagnosis might coincide with the recommended vaccine schedule, but vaccines have been proven to be unrelated to the development of autism. It's crucial that children receive their recommended vaccinations to protect them from preventable diseases like measles [4].

Vaccination Autism Risk
Influenza and Whooping cough (Pregnancy) No Increased Risk
Childhood Vaccines No Increased Risk

The prevention of autism isn't entirely understood, and more research is needed. However, these factors provide some potential ways to possibly reduce the risk of autism. It's important for pregnant women to follow their healthcare provider's advice regarding vitamin intake and to ensure that both they and their children receive the recommended vaccinations.

Autism Symptoms and Diagnosis

Understanding the symptoms and diagnosing autism is crucial in ensuring that individuals receive the support and interventions they need. The core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are typically classified into two categories: restricted and repetitive behaviors, and challenges in social interaction.

Restricted and Repetitive Behaviors

People diagnosed with autism typically exhibit at least two types of restricted and repetitive behaviors. These behaviors can include repetitive movements, such as rocking or hand-flapping, and an insistence on sameness and routine. Individuals may also have intense interests in specific topics, and exhibit unusual sensitivity or lack thereof to sensory stimulation, such as sound, light, or texture.

It's important to note that the presence of these behaviors alone does not necessarily indicate autism. The behaviors must be pervasive and interfere with daily functioning to be considered indicative of ASD. Moreover, not all individuals on the spectrum will present these symptoms in the same way, and some individuals without ASD may also exhibit similar signs and behaviors.

Social Interaction Challenges

The second core characteristic of ASD is difficulty with social interaction. This can manifest in numerous ways, including challenges with communication skills and difficulties in developing and maintaining relationships.

Individuals with ASD may struggle to understand and use non-verbal communication cues, such as eye contact, facial expressions, and body language. They may also have difficulty understanding and expressing their own emotions, and may find it challenging to understand other people's viewpoints. These challenges can make it difficult for individuals with ASD to form and maintain social relationships.

Again, it's crucial to understand that these symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. Some individuals with ASD may desire social interaction but struggle with the skills needed to engage effectively, while others may prefer to spend time alone. These variations underscore the spectrum nature of ASD and highlight the importance of individualized diagnosis and treatment plans.

In conclusion, understanding the core symptoms of autism - restricted and repetitive behaviors and challenges in social interaction - is crucial for the early identification and appropriate support of individuals with ASD. However, it's important to remember that these symptoms can vary widely across individuals, reflecting the diverse nature of the autism spectrum.

Diagnosis and Early Intervention

The process of diagnosing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often involves two key steps: developmental monitoring and developmental screening. Early diagnosis and intervention can significantly impact the trajectory of a child's development and quality of life.

Developmental Monitoring

Developmental monitoring, also known as surveillance, is an ongoing process that involves observing how a child grows and whether they meet typical developmental milestones by a certain age. This includes watching a child's skills in playing, learning, speaking, behaving, and moving. Parents, grandparents, early childhood education providers, and other caregivers can all participate in this process [7].

A key aspect of developmental monitoring is understanding and looking out for the signs of ASD. For instance, if a child does not respond to their name by 12 months, or does not point at objects to show interest by 14 months, these could be potential signs of ASD. If a child displays any signs of ASD or other developmental issues, it's important to move on to the next step - developmental screening.

Developmental Screening

Developmental screening is a formal process that takes a closer look at how a child is developing. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children undergo developmental screening during regular well-child visits at specific ages. Furthermore, all children should be specifically screened for ASD during these visits.

If a child shows any potential signs of ASD during developmental screening, they should undergo a comprehensive developmental evaluation. This is a thorough review conducted by a team of trained specialists such as a developmental pediatrician, child psychologist, speech-language pathologist, or occupational therapist. This evaluation helps to determine if a child meets the criteria for a developmental diagnosis, which now includes autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome [7].

ASD can sometimes be detected at 18 months of age or younger. By age 2, a diagnosis by an experienced professional can be considered reliable. However, many children do not receive a final diagnosis until much older, with some not diagnosed until they are adolescents or adults. This delay can result in individuals with ASD not receiving the early help they need. Therefore, diagnosing children with ASD as early as possible is crucial to ensure they receive the necessary services and supports to reach their full potential [7].

Treatment and Support for Autism

Autism, a complex neurodevelopmental disorder, requires a unique approach to treatment and support. The goal of treatment is not to cure autism, as that is currently not possible, but to enhance the individual's functioning by managing symptoms and supporting development and learning. The type and extent of treatment and support required can vary widely among individuals with autism.

Individualized Treatment Approach

There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for autism spectrum disorder. Treatment plans are typically personalized to address the unique needs and challenges of each individual. According to the Mayo Clinic, early intervention during the preschool years can aid in teaching essential social, communication, functional, and behavioral skills.

In addition to autism, many individuals with autism spectrum disorder may also have other medical and mental health conditions that require management. Therefore, the treatment approach often involves a team of specialists, including pediatricians, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and psychologists, among others.

While individuals with autism spectrum disorder usually continue to learn and adapt throughout their lives, many will need some level of support. Planning for the future of a child with autism involves considerations such as employment, college, living arrangements, independence, and necessary supportive services.

Complementary Therapies Consideration

Complementary and alternative therapies may sometimes be considered in the treatment of autism spectrum disorder. However, it's important to note that many of these therapies lack scientific evidence of effectiveness, and some may even be dangerous.

Some complementary therapies, when combined with evidence-based treatments, may offer benefits. However, before adopting any alternative therapy, it's crucial to discuss it with the child's doctor to ensure they are safe and evidence-based.

As per the Mayo Clinic, it's recommended that parents and caregivers approach complementary treatments with caution, thoroughly researching the potential risks and benefits and discussing them with medical professionals.

In conclusion, the treatment and support for autism should be as unique as the individual with the condition. A combination of personalized treatments, early intervention, continuous learning, and the consideration of complementary therapies can help individuals with autism to lead fulfilling lives.









steven zauderer

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

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