What do we know about Autism?

This is truly a topic of much discussion and research: Autism. On February 18th, 60 Minutes featured a segment on this topic; the very next morning, one of the area’s morning news shows also presented this same subject. What is autism, how is it defined, and how common is it in the population?

Autism is a complex behavioral disorder that impairs a child’s social interactions, communicative skills, and is characterized by repetitive behaviors. The prevalence of autism is estimated to be about 1 in 155 children, making it one of the most common childhood disorders. The disorder, by definition, develops before 3 years of age but characteristic behavioral features are evident early, including failure to make eye contact, sleep disturbances, failure to respond to his or her name, staring into space. In most cases, the onset of the condition is gradual.

The exact cause(s) of autism are not fully understood. The vast majority of cases (90-95%) have idiopathic autism or autism with no identifiable cause. In about 10% of the cases the cause is termed ‘secondary’; that is, associated with chromosomal abnormalities, certain environmental exposures like German measles, or specific medications. At this time, no single genes have definitively been identified in idiopathic autism.

One possible cause that has been much discussed is childhood immunizations, particularly the MMR vaccine and the use of vaccines that contained a mercury preservative called thimerosal. Studies reported in 2001, 2004, 2005, and July 2006 have found no scientific evidence for a relationship between MMR vaccines, thimerosal-containing vaccines and development of autism. The most recent work being published in the scientific journal Pediatrics, using data from a Canadian study.

Are we seeing an autism epidemic? Is the increasing numbers of diagnoses associated to a broader definition of autism? What is the current status of autism research? On June 21st, as part of our annual summer course for teachers, the GGC will host an hour presentation on “The Changing Face of Autism: Is It Really More Common or Just Easier to Recognize?” This lecture will be open to the public and you are invited to attend. More information will be available later in the spring.