Autism spectrum disorder is the third most diagnosed developmental disorder in the Philippines, behind mental retardation and cerebral palsy. Worldwide statistics show 1 in 160 children has the condition.
“Around the world, the number of children identified with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has nearly reached epidemic proportions,” said Autism Hearts Foundation president Lynda Borromeo, in a report by BusinessWorld. Referring to a range of conditions resulting to impairment in different areas including behavioral, social, language and communication, ASD begins in early childhood and persists throughout adulthood.
When it comes to its risks and causes, however, experts are currently unable to pin down on one answer, but there are a number of leads that show promise. Here's what we know about the causes and risks of autism so far: 1. Genes play a big role A mounting body of research may point to autism’s strongest risk factor: genetics. “It looks like genetics can account for 50% of the risk for autism, which is very high,” David Amaral, an autism specialist at the UC Davis MIND Institute, told Vox.
Parents of a child with autism have a 1 in 20 chance of having another child with the condition. “A younger sibling of a child with autism is five to 10 times more likely to have autism than a child in the general population,” Rebecca Landa, Ph.D., director of the Kennedy Krieger Institute's Center for Autism and Related Disorders, told Everyday Health. “Identical twins are also more likely to share autism than twins who do not share all the same genes.”
2. It’s more common in boys Males are more often affected by autism than females, with research suggesting a 4:1 ratio, reported Scientific American. How it happens exactly remains unknown, but results from studies show that the answer may lie in gene mutations. “This could suggest that, while women and girls are less likely to develop autism, when they do they are more severely impaired,” said The National Autistic Society in the U.K.
3. Vaccines do not cause autism The notion that vaccines, specifically the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, can cause autism continues to persist despite groups of experts and large studies saying otherwise. The 1998 study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield which initially suggested the link was “later found to be seriously flawed and fraudulent. The paper was subsequently retracted by the journal that published it,” said the World Health Organization (WHO).
“Unbeknownst to the patients’ parents and the medical community, Wakefield was paid to distort the study’s data for a lawsuit involving [a new syndrome related to autism]. While he was eventually discredited, the irrational fear of vaccines would continue to live on in the minds of many parents,” read a report from Esquiremag.ph.
Vaccinations prevent serious, life-threatening diseases, its spread, and the complications they can cause. They are safe and effective, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
4. What happens in your pregnancy matters Several possible factors that occur during a mom's pregnancy have been linked to autism in her child. These include contracting a severe infection from diseases like German measles and chicken pox, taking antidepressants, a lack of vitamin D, and exposure to air pollution.
However, these studies still lack strong evidence and further research is needed. For example, “some studies show some associations [between infections and autism] and others don’t,” explained Dr. Alice Kau, program director for research on autism at the National Institutes of Health, to Vox. “The findings are mixed.”
5. We don't know how to prevent it yet Researchers have yet to find the definite cause of autism, so there is no way of knowing to prevent it. There is also little you can do with your genes. But, taking care of yourself during your pregnancy, experts say, may help a lot.
“If a woman is considering becoming pregnant, one of the best things she can do is give herself six months or even a year to improve her diet and make better lifestyle choices,” said Maureen McDonnell, RN, in an editorial for the Autism Research Institute in the U.S.
McDonnell’s advice: exercise, eat right, and avoid alcohol and tobacco. Make sure to take a doctor's prescribed multivitamins during pregnancy, stay away from toxic substances like those in cleaning products, and take measures to avoid getting sick.