As a child I had a best friend whose brother is autistic. When I moved away from where I lived, a new best friend of mine also had an autistic brother. I was always curious as to what autism really was and what the treatment was for it. I am curious as to what the latest treatment scientists have come up with and what effects and side effects they have on the autistic children.
I’m sure a majority of people have heard of autism and think they know what it is. For those of us who are uncertain, autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) (What is Autism? 1). This group is often referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is estimated that one in 110 children have autism. That is more than juveniles with AIDS and childhood cancer combined. Each year the number of children diagnosed with autism increases by 10-17 percent. This could be because we are getting better at detecting even the slightest cases or because there are outside factors. Autism seems to be more common in boys than girls. About one in 70 boys have autism.
Many people wonder what causes autism and there really isn’t a known answer. There have been thoughts of a few cases being genetic disorders such as Fragile X, Tuberous Sclerosis, and Angelman’s Syndrome. Exposure to environmental agents such as infectious ones (maternal rubella or cytomegalovirus) or chemical ones (thalidomide or valproate) during pregnancy are also thought to be potential causes of autism. Research is being done on whether the immune system has anything to do with autism. There is evidence from the last thirty years that suggest inflammation in the central nervous system may be a cause. Autism Speaks is working to extend awareness and investigation of potential immunological issues to researchers outside the field of autism as well as those within the autism research community (What is autism? 1). It used to be thought that autism was a result of bad parenting, but studies throughout the years have shown that it is a biological disorder and parenting has nothing to do with it.
There are many different ways to approach how to handle autism. There are behavior and communications therapies, educational therapies and medications. Behavior and communication therapy works on social, language and behavioral difficulties associated with autism. There are different facilities that specialize in each aspect and focus on that one part. Although they never outgrow autism, some kids are able to learn to function well with the disorder. Educational therapies are also used. Children with autism often respond well to highly structured education programs (Treatments and Drugs 1). A successful educational program includes a lot of instructors and has a lot of activities for the children to do. It focuses on social skills, communication and behavior.
No medication can improve the core signs of autism, but certain medications can help control symptoms. Antidepressants may be prescribed for anxiety, for example, and antipsychotic drugs are sometimes used to treat severe behavioral problems (Treatments and Drugs 1).
Scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have proposed a new theory of autism. It suggests that the brains of people with autism are structurally normal but dysregulated, meaning symptoms of the disorder might be reversible (Science News). Some researchers believe that autism is a developmental disorder in the locus coeruleus, a bundle of neurons in the brain stem that processes sensory signals from all areas of the body. The new theory stems from decades of observations that some autistic children seem to improve when they have a fever, only to lessen when the fever ebbs. A 2007 study in the journal Pediatrics took a deeper look at fever and autism. They observed autistic children during and after fever episodes and comparing their behavior with autistic children who didn’t have fevers. This study showed that autistic children experience behavior changes during fever (Science News). Whether or not they are on to something is unsure. Researchers are still studying and trying to find out more about autism.
There has been a breakthrough at the Indiana University School of Medicine. They have been doing research on how to alleviate autism symptoms. The drug, Arbaclofen, designed to rebalance brain chemistry hailed as the first treatment that could help ease Autism’s distressing symptoms (New Autism Drug Offers Hope 1). A team from the university enrolled 25 autistic children ages 6 to 17. The severity of each child’s condition was tested. The found the levels of communication, imagination, and social relationship problems. They gave the drug to each patient for over eight weeks. At the end of the eight week trial, the participants seemed to be calmer and more sociable. Other observations made were more frequent eye contact, less anxious, and less irritable.
So how does Arbaclofen work? Well, the current line of treatment is usually usage of anti-depressants and anti-psychotics that will target only specific problems. With Arbaclofen, brain chemistry is being rebalanced. This drug is being developed by Seaside Therapeutics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Arbaclofen is also thought to normalize their oversensitivity to loud noises, sudden changes in the environment, and increase of anxiety and fear. Although this seems to be such a remarkable finding, it is unsure how well it will work for every person who takes it seeing as it will effect each person differently especially with different severities of the disorder.
What do you know about autism and related issues? Have you heard of any other new medications to help with the behavior? Do you know anything from personal experiences or relationships with autistic people regarding behavior? Do you think there are other underlying factors that cause autism? Could this help researchers come up with new treatments?