The month of April is touted as Autism Awareness Month; a time for us to look back over the past year and reflect on what we have learned about Autism. The most dramatic news about Autism is the latest statistic announced by the US Centers for Disease Control. The March 2014 estimate of 1 in 68, represents a 30% increase over the numbers that were reported two years ago.
It is commonly speculated that the increase in prevalence is a function of improved diagnostic protocols for children on the “spectrum”, meaning that identification is happening with greater frequency across all IQ levels and ranges of capabilities. Whether there are actually ‘more’ people with autism now than a decade ago, continues to be a source of debate; and research efforts endeavor to distinguish the biological, genetic, and environmental underpinnings of the diagnosis. New research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggests a link to brain development in utero. The study found patches of abnormal neurons in brain areas associated with language, communication, and social-emotional skills.
So what’s the good news? Although larger scale studies will need to be conducted, the implications for treatment are promising. Early intervention has long been emphasized for children who demonstrate characteristics of autism. According to Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, “If this new report of disorganized architecture in the brains of some children with autism is replicated, we can presume this reflects a process occurring long before birth. This reinforces the importance of early identification and intervention.”