Autism.  We are living in a world where Autism seems to be everywhere.  Jenny McCarthy has talked about it on Oprah, the New York Times has reported about it repeatedly (e.g., NYT1, NYT2, NYT3, NYT4, NYT5, NYT6, NYT7, NYT8, NYT9, NYT10) and offers discussion groups and blogsMedical Doctors and Children’s Hospitals are blogging about it, Movies (e.g., Temple Grandin, The Horse Boy) and Books (e.g., The Horse Boy, Louder than Words, Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew, Thinking in Pictures, Making Peace with Autism) are written about it, celebrity magazines write about it, activist groups and foundations have been created and dedicated to it (e.g., AutismSpeaks, GenerationRescue, AutismSociety, Doug Flutie Jr Foundation), Psychologists, Neuroscientists, Animal Scientists, and other professionals are studying it.  It really feels like Autism is everywhere. And it’s scary.

I hate writing about something scary and I hate writing about something that I don’t have the answers to.  As a scientist we are trained to look for answers.  Can a child learn from a baby video? yes or no. Do children learn language better when parents speak more to them? yes or no.  Is it safer for kids to sleep on their backs? yes or no.  I like answers. Concrete “yes” or “no” answers.  Unfortunately, Autism is all about questions and we are only starting to pick away at answers.  So, this isn’t a post about what causes Autism or how to cure/heal children with Autism.  Instead, as a website dedicated to providing child development resources to parents-this is just a post about Autism- something like a course you would get in a Child Development class in college about Autism and full of resources and links so you can continue to learn whatever else you may want to know.

What is Autism? Even this is hard to answer.  Basically, it is a term used to describe a group of brain development disorders.  The difficulty with Autism is that the cases are very unique and while they have overlapping symptoms not all kids with Autism show all the same symptoms.  (AutismSpeaks has a brief definition; Autism Society defines Autism in a little more detail; National Institutes of Health definition).

Who has Autism? 1 in 110 children (1 in 70 boys) (CDC).

What Causes Autism? We don’t know, but researchers and scientists are working to understand it.  There are lots of theories that are currently being tested and we can only hope that we will learn more about what causes Autism and how to prevent it as time goes on.  It seems likely that Autism is caused by some sort of combination of genetic and environmental factors (meaning that kids may be born with a higher chance of developing Autism, but that likely there is some sort of environmental trigger that is necessary for the child to develop Autism). Recently the theory that vaccines cause Autism was debunked and it was noted that the author had manipulated the data to arrive at the findings (Boston GlobeNew York TimesCenter for Disease Control).  Also see National Institutes of Health for information about Causes.

Early Indicators and Things to Look for (as listed on the National Institutes of Health Website):

  • No babbling or pointing by age 1
  • No single words by 16 months
  • No 2-word phrases by age 2
  • Does not respond to name
  • Loss of language or social skills
  • Poor eye contact
  • Excessive lining up of toys/objects
  • No smiling or social responsiveness

Diagnosis: Autism is diagnosed by a team of Health Care providers who use a questionnaire to gather information about the child.  Often times a psychologist, neurologist, speech therapist, and psychologist are involved in determining the diagnosis. Autism cannot be tested with a blood test or other medical procedure.  (See NIH website).


Animal Therapies have been tried including therapies with Dogs and HorsesBehavioral Therapies and Education Therapies, Medications. Non-medical interventions, dietary treatments, etc.


The CDC has entire section about ongoing Autism Research.

Boston University has a Lab of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience that is conducting Autism Research, specifically they currently have an infant sibling project which “aims to identify risk markers for autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) or language delays that may be present during the first 12 months of life.”

Autism Research Consortium was created in 1996 as a multidisciplinary group of investigators dedicated to researching  issues related to Autism.

National Institutes of Health is leading the The Studies for the Advancement of Autism Research and Treatment which is a 5 year research effort focused on Autism.

Autism Research Centre is based out of the University of Cambridge and currently they are conducting 7 projects related to Autism.

I have to say that while this is all very overwhelming. There are some terrific resources and still a whole lot of questions out there. Hopefully we will continue to make positive progress and have a better  understanding about the causes of Autism and ways to heal/cure it in the near future.

I think an important take home point with all research and especially with research that is a “hot topic” issue in popular media- like Autism- is to make sure to be very careful about what you read and what you believe.  We do have a long way to go before we will know the “Yes” or “No” answers to Autism and until we get there, there is a risk that people will incorrectly or mistakenly report information.  A perfect example is the impact that Wakefield’s study  has had on the belief that Autism is caused by vaccines and the recent realization that this study was not just wrong but the data was manipulated! (See the Institute of Medicine Review).

Suggested Reading:

Making Peace with Autism by Susan Senator

The Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son by Rupert Isaacson (also a documentary)

Related Websites:

Center for Disease Control

National Institutes of Health


Doug Flutie Jr Foundation

Children’s Hospital videos about Autism

PBS Frontline Series about Vaccines

Temple Grandin

Autism Gene Scientific Report in Nature

Child Development Institute article about Dog Therarpy

1 Comment

Filed under All Kids

One response to “Autism

  1. Taryn

    As an autistic adult, I’ve followed the research on mechanisms and causation with interest. The best work I’ve seen provides evidence that we’ve got a problem with neuronal cell adhesion and ubiquitin degradation (I don’t know what that is, but it’s definitely a genetic thing) which affects our ability to quickly process certain stimuli; moreover, three specific regions of the genome seem to be involved. See for a helpful article on this, though it’s really just a sample of what’s available.

    I’ve never seen strong evidence that there’s an environmental cause (not even a partial one, as you mention above), though I suppose it’s possible that certain social and physical environments present challenges which make autism easier to spot.

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