Millions of children around the world live with autism. Every day, thousands of kids are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There’s a good chance you know someone who is directly or indirectly affected by autism, even if they’re not particularly forthcoming about the experience.
But how much do you really know about autism?
ASD is a complex condition that we’re only just beginning to unravel. The good news is that we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress toward understanding ASD in a relatively short timeframe. The bad news is that we’re still a long way from where we need to be.
The coming months and years will be pivotal. Charities like the Autism Research Trust (ART) are stepping up to fund critical research into the causes, progression and treatments of ASD. Innovative organizations like Autism Rocks are doing their part to raise funds for groups like ART and increase their visibility in an increasingly crowded philanthropic landscape. And, thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever to donate to Autism Rocks and its brethren, even if you’re not on the invite list to any of its star-studded shows.
What about where the rubber meets the road? What are the researchers whose work depends on these charities actually doing? And can we point to tangible progress that gives us hope for the future of ASD treatment?
Let’s take a look at a few of the most promising areas of autism research. For more detail, check out ART’s periodic progress reports.
Gene Sequencing in Prenatal Populations
Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre, funded by the Autism Research Trust, is working on a prenatal “deep sequencing” process that could identify genes that contribute to autism. Findings could help researchers investigate and identify potential prenatal remediation or provide prospective parents with more accurate assessments of their future children’s autism risk.
This prenatal project further investigates a previous study’s findings concerning the presence of elevated levels of androstenedione, a key hormone, in individuals with autism. According to ART, “This hormone is one step before testosterone in the biochemical pathway and provides a strong clue for why brain development may differ in these patients and why autism may affect males more often than females.”
Correlation Between Parental STEM Employment and Autism
An intriguing population study in the Dutch city of Eindhoven attempts to uncover the correlation, if any, between parental STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) employment and the development of ASD in children. Researchers are investigating whether children with two STEM-employed parents are more likely to be diagnosed with autism than children with one or no STEM-employed parent(s), and whether one STEM-employed parent has any significant bearing on autism development.
Red Flags for Primary Care Physicians (GPs)
Though detection and diagnosis protocols have improved dramatically in recent years, they’re far from perfect. This study aims to identify a set of “red flags” for primary care physicians (general practitioners) to use when evaluating young children. A critical mass of such red flags warrants further investigation and/or referral to psychologists and other specialists equipped to make formal ASD diagnoses.
The Oxytocin Project
Known as the “social hormone,” oxytocin plays a crucial but little-understood role in guiding the behavior and development of children with ASD. Supported by ART and the Autism Research Centre, the Oxytocin Project aims to add to our collective knowledge of oxytocin’s effects—and treatment potential. According to ART, one of the project’s recent initiatives involves “measuring both social and non-social skills [in children with ASD] whilst under the influence of oxytocin nasal spray,” a promising behavioral treatment method.
Early Autism Brain Development
This project maps the brain development of high-risk infants through age 1. The goal is to “identify neural markers that may be predictive of a risk for autism by examining how early neural growth is related to behavioural traits and by testing if these characteristics are related to the development of autism,” according to ART.
More to Uncover
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The medical community learns more about ASD every day. New grants and initiatives are announced every week. And every month brings high-profile partnerships and government programs that provide additional streams of support for the effort.
There’s no doubt that the wind is at the research community’s back. But ASD isn’t going to investigate itself. If we’re serious about uncovering the root causes of autism, improving treatment for those affected and developing new strategies to help those with ASD and their loved ones to live happier, more productive lives, we need everyone to step up and do their part.