You’ve probably heard a lot about autism in the news lately, especially since rates have been rising: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in 68 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the United States in 2014, a rate that’s increased by about 30 percent since 2012.
While the cause behind autism is unclear, the good news is that a tremendous amount of research is happening right now. Scientists believe that there are likely multiple causes behind autism, especially since symptoms vary so much from child to child. Both genetics and environment appear to play a role. One factor that has, however, been ruled out: vaccines. Extensive research has been conducted, and no reliable study has ever shown a link between the two.
From the effect of very early intervention to parsing the genetic puzzle, here’s a roundup of a few of the highlights of important recent studies. If you have concerns about autism signs in your child, the following are all great developments to talk about with your healthcare practitioner for more insight and perspective.
New Technology Pinpoints Autism in Genes
Researchers have long suspected that genetics play a part in the development of ASD, and they’ve been getting closer to unraveling exactly how. In recent years, scientists have identified hundreds of genetic mutations associated with autism. But now new technology is helping scientists figure out how specific genetic mutations are involved in the development of autism. A digital atlas of brain development called BrainSpan maps how and where genes become active in the brain. In a 2013 study in the journal Cell, researchers used this technology to track how nine genes strongly linked to autism affected brain development. They found that all nine genes influenced the development of one type of brain cell in one region of the brain during just one specific period of prenatal development — that is, three to five months after conception. This developing research will hopefully help scientists to better understand the genetic basis of autism as well as potentially find new targets for treatment.
Folic Acid May Lower Autism Risk
One more reason to take your prenatal vitamin: Research has found that it may reduce the risk of autism. A 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirmed previous findings that prenatal folic acid significantly reduced the risk of autism. Using data on more than 85,000 children from the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort, researchers showed that taking a prenatal folic acid supplement a few weeks before conceiving and throughout during pregnancy reduced the risk of ASD in their kids by 39 percent. Don’t forget that taking a prenatal supplement with folic acid in early pregnancy also protects against neural tube defects including spina bifida. Folate (what folic acid is called when it’s consumed in food) is also found in a wide range of foods, including leafy vegetables, peas, lentils, eggs and fortified flour.
Iron Intake Linked to Autism Risk
Did we mention the importance of taking a prenatal vitamin? Low levels of iron during pregnancy have been linked to a higher risk of having a child with autism — and about 40 to 50 percent of women are deficient in iron during pregnancy, according to a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Researchers looked at 520 children with autism and 346 typically-developing children, examining the mother’s intake of iron from about three months before conception through pregnancy and breastfeeding. Though further research is needed, researchers did show that mothers of kids with ASD were significantly less likely to have taken iron supplements before and during pregnancy. There was also a relationship between the mother’s age and iron intake: Women ages 35 years and older with a low intake of iron were at a fivefold greater risk of having a child with autism.
Early Intervention Can Be Effective
Clinicians currently can’t reliably diagnose autism until about the age of 2, the age when symptoms typically become obvious. But growing research indicates that early autism warning signs, including repetitive behaviors and lack of social engagement, can show up in much younger kids. And as children are diagnosed at younger ages, it’s important treatments are available to them — which is why a very small 2014 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders is promising. Researchers worked with seven parents of infants between the ages of 6 to 15 months who displayed behaviors suggesting they were at high risk for developing autism (decreased eye contact, social interest or engagement; repetitive movement patterns). The parents were trained in techniques that encouraged social engagement with their babies. By the age of 3 years, the children who received treatment had significantly less severe autism symptoms compared to those with similar symptoms who did not receive therapy. The study is small so that the results aren’t conclusive — but the research is important because it showed intervention at a very early age can be effective.
Broccoli Sprouts May Ease Autism Symptoms
A chemical called sulforaphane (found in broccoli sprouts) may lead to notable improvements in teens and young adults, according to a small 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Researchers looked at 40 boys and young men between the ages of 13 to 27 who were all diagnosed with moderate to severe autism. They gave 29 a supplement and the rest a placebo (or “fake”) pill. Nearly half of those who received the supplement responded to it — 42 percent had significantly improved verbal communication, and 54 percent had substantially decreased abnormal behaviors. Though more research is needed, these preliminary findings suggest sulphoraphane might improve autism symptoms by targeting the basic mechanisms of the disorder at the cellular level. In addition to treating young kids who are showing the first signs of autism, the chemical could have potential benefits if taken during pregnancy, noted researchers.
GI Problems Linked to Autism
Many parents notice their kids with ASD have a lot more gastrointestinal (GI) upsets than other kids — and a large 2014 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders supports this observation. Common GI symptoms (including constipation, diarrhea and sensitivity to foods) were six to eight times more common in children with autism, said researchers. Kids with developmental delay were also five times more likely to have constipation and far more likely to report difficulty swallowing. To date this is the largest (almost 1000 children) and most ethnically diverse study to look at how GI problems relate to autism and behavioral problems in kids. Researchers noted that GI symptoms could be causing behavior problems, and that behavior problems could also make to GI symptoms worse.
Can Autism Be “Cured?”
Although treatment can improve symptoms, autism is generally considered to be lifelong condition — but a small 2013 study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that some kids may recover (or come close to it). However the study did not look at the type of intervention that these children received — which means follow-up research is necessary to reach any conclusions.
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