Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Puzzling Spectrum of Autism Causes
By Kristina Chew
May 5th, 2008

What do TV, ultrasounds, insufficient vitamin D, air pollution, a mother having the flu while pregnant, mercury, have to do with each other?

All have been named as possible causes of autism. TK Kenyon looks at the puzzling spectrum of research into the cause of autism, some of which he labels as “just plain stupid”—the theory by economist Michael Waldman that tv causes autismautism causes tv—while others are “brilliant”—a 2006 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), about a genetic variant that disrupts the transcription of MET, a gene that is a tyrosine kinase receptor and that “participates in brain growth and maturation, immune function, and repair of the digestive system.” As Kenyon further notes about the latter:

Children with autism often have symptoms of disturbances in some or all of these systems. This research ties together these disparate symptoms and explains why children with neurological symptoms often have diarrhea or immunological problems.

There’s something about autism that attracts speculation about “what causes it” and “why the increase”? People are quick to shake their heads at the suggestion that better diagnosis and more understanding about autism are real factors in the recent increase in the prevalence rate of autism, which is now 1 in 150 among children in the US, and 1 in 94 in New Jersey where I live.

Is it that people want to know why a child like my son can look so “normal,” with no obvious health problems (indeed, my son is very healthy, strong, and muscular from lots of physical activity)? Or why some autistic individuals seem to have behaviors that are highly reminiscent of those only absorbed—”obsessed”—with that quintessential product of the techno-computer age, the video game? Is autism about the “odd”/”strange”/”bizarre”/”abnormal” behaviors that one sees (and that are currently used to diagnose it), or is autism something invisible to the naked eye—-something in the genes, or just some kind of neuro-difference?

No surprise that the search is on for a biomarker for autism (one such candidate is accelerated head growth). If we could just pinpoint what causes autism, then we could figure out a cure.

I’m not at all sure what such a “cure” would look like. If I wanted to, I could say—could sculpt my words to prove—that my son has “recovered” to the extent that he could: He can talk now (in short, short sentences and not always clearly). He is curious about people and about children his age in particular, though his burgeoning and rather rote social skills do not make for too much actual interaction. As noted, he’s extremely healthy, and he’s extremely attuned to the world around him; to what Jim and I say and are feeling. He’s got more than his share of obsessions, anxieties, what can be called “tics” or “stims,” from holding his shoulders and hands a certain exaggerated way to (sometimes) constantly humming. He’s come much farther than anyone would or could have predicted when he was being evaluated at the Child Development Clinic in the Minneapolis Children’s Hospital, almost nine years ago. His IEP, neurology reports, forms for the Department of Developmental Disabilities, doctors’ reports, all have one six-letter word somewhere:


And sometimes the puzzle to me is why it seems so hard, or unpleasant perhaps, or just unfathomable, to accept a genetic explanation for autism. As each day passes, I see more and more of Jim and of myself in Charlie and these observations reassure me more than anything else. Neither Jim nor I have autism. Charlie does.

I think there is (to me) the beginning of an answer somewhere in there.


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