Prevalence of Autism

I must admit, my goal of providing a one paragraph, content-rich blog is much harder than I originally thought. Parenting topics swirl around in my head, yet I struggle with providing enough “gravitas” to the material.  How can you discuss autism in one paragraph (you can’t). Nevertheless, I want to dedicate this blog to a subject that readers and friends most often ask me about…the increased prevalence of autism.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average increase of 57 percent in identified autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) from 2002 to 2006, and current statistics suggest that about 1 in 110 children have ASD, or approximately 1%.  Pause…57 percent? Additionally, ASD prevalence is 4-5 times higher among boys than among girls. Autism is a lifelong disorder, a physical condition linked to abnormal biology and brain chemistry.  Some children with an ASD show hints of future developmental delay within the first few months of life. For others, the symptoms might not show up until 24 months or later.  A person with an ASD might:
– Not respond to their name by 12 months
– Not point at objects to show interest (point at an airplane flying over) by 14 months
– Not play “pretend” games (pretend to “feed” a doll) by 18 months
– Avoid eye contact and want to be alone
– Have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
– Have delayed speech and language skills
– Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
– Give unrelated answers to questions
– Get upset by minor changes
– Have obsessive interests
– Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles
– Have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel

Unfortunately, the cause of autism is unknown. However, we have learned that many different variables can make a child more likely to have an ASD. Here is a list of potential causal and/or risk factors:
Genetic vulnerability:  Most scientists agree that there is some sort of genetic component to autism. Parents from families with autistic members are more likely to have autistic children, and families with one autistic child are also at increased risk of having more than one autistic child. Autism also tends to occur more frequently than expected among individuals who have certain medical conditions, including Fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, congenital rubella syndrome, and untreated phenylketonuria (PKU).
Environmental factors: environmental toxins, such as heavy metals and mercury (used in dental fillings, etc.) are more prevalent in our current environment. Those with ASD can be especially vulnerable, as their ability to metabolize and detoxify exposure can be compromised. Some harmful substances ingested during pregnancy, such as prescription drugs thalidomide and valproic acid, have also been associated with an increased risk of autism. Source: CDC
Vaccines: Two theories link autism and vaccines. The first theory suggests that the MMR (Mumps-Measles-Rubella) vaccine may cause intestinal problems leading to the development of autism. The second theory suggests that a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal, used in some vaccines, could be connected to autism.
4) Metabolic disorders:  It has been suggested that up to fifty percent of children with autism experience persistent gastrointestinal tract problems, ranging from mild to moderate degrees of inflammation in both the upper and lower intestinal tract. Treatment of digestive problems might have positive effects on autistic behavior (Horvath and Perman).
Increased Awareness and Diagnosis: Some researchers believe that autism is increasing primarily due rising awareness and changes in diagnostic criteria. Many concerned parents dispute this theory.
6) Other Factors:  Finally, there are numerous causal factors that have been considered by scientists as part of the autism “puzzle”… Prenatal Environment (advanced maternal and paternal age, fetal alcohol syndrome, exposure to infection or chemicals in the first 8-weeks of gestation, gestational diabetes, thyroid problems, prenatal stress), Perinatal Environment (Low birth weight, prematurity, hypoxia during childbirth, bleeding in the brain during childbirth), and Postnatal Environment (proximity to highways & air pollution, pesticides, mercury, lead poisoning, lack of vitamin D, etc.).

For more information on how autism is diagnosed (and a comprehensive list of early indicators), click HERE.

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