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Despite increased knowledge, myths about autism continue


Pop quiz: What causes autism?

Is it: A) a cold, unfeeling mother; B) childhood immunizations; C) genes; or D) an overexposure to the TV show “Spongebob Squarepants” during developmental years?

Though medical research is exploring many theories, the most correct answer is C. Autism has strong genetic links. In a study published Jan. 23 in the journal Cell, 102 different genes were identified as impacting autism.

You’ve probably heard the childhood immunizations theory before. This is one of the most well-known but most discredited myths of modern science. Fortunately, the equally unsupported “refrigerator parent” theory of the mid-20th century is a less-compelling explanation to our modern sentiments. Neither has any basis in accepted research.

I concocted the “Spongebob Squarepants” theory.

However, if you really look at the evidence, Spongebob was born at the same time that autism diagnosis experienced a dramatic upturn. The correlation factor is about as strong as the immunization theory. But hopefully, we all recall from our science and statistics classes that correlation (things happening simultaneously) is not causation (something happening as the result of another). Spongebob, I acquit you.

Perhaps you are already aware of the overwhelming evidence for genetic causes to autism. So, here’s your next question: What caused the rise in autism rates in the 1990s and early 2000s?

Was the cause: A) an unidentified epidemic impacting young children; B) an increase in awareness; C) a change in diagnostic criteria; D) an increase in premature infants who survive; or E) everything but A?

If you are chasing that unknown X factor running rampant among our small children, relax. The answer is E. The perceived increase in autism is a combination of multiple factors, mostly increased awareness of autism by medical professionals and changes to the criteria to diagnose autism, resulting in more people fitting the criteria. Other factors, such as the survival rate of premature infants, may also be playing a small role.

There is also a question of whether the overall diagnoses have increased at all. During the same time that autism diagnoses have increased, the rate of diagnosing broader, related disability categories have decreased. This supports the assertion that autism doesn’t occur significantly more than it did 50 years ago; we just diagnose it with more specificity.

Final question: What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

A) The modern single diagnosis used for what used to be a group of associated disorders (including autism, Asperger Syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder); B) a neurological condition that begins in early childhood and runs through the lifespan, affecting the person’s social interactions, communication and sensory perceptions; C) a reflection of the growing understanding that people’s neurological makeup may run a wide spectrum, and what we have traditionally been seen as autism may simply be a section along a wide array of normal, natural neurological development; D) all of the above.

I suspect you’ve learned to choose D.

We know a lot more about autism than we did 20 years ago, but the myths still seem to pervade. There are many reputable sources for information, the Autism Society of America is a good place to start at www.autism-society.org.

Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.