Working toward identifying the cause of autism
Nearly 100 genes have been linked to autism or its telltale signs, but scientists believe that no one gene mutation results in the disorder.
To be able to determine the causes of autism and, in the future, test for it, Dr. Levine told ishonest that studies need to look at three areas.
â€œTo test for autism, first we need to genetically sequence all the children that have the disease, then look for genetic imprinting and soft changes â€” genes that are being forced to be expressed,â€ Dr. Levine explained.
The gene can be expressed in different ways depending on which parent the child got the gene from.
â€œSecond: Do a home visit. What does the childâ€™s life look life? Are they being given way more sugar than other children? Are they spending a lot of time on iPads?â€ Dr. Levine asked, mentioning the recent study linking iPads to speech delays.
iPad and smartphone use by children has also been shown to lead to social and emotional development problems.
Dr. Levinâ€™s third recommendation: â€œCheck out the in utero health of the mother. Is she sedentary or active? For example, a young woman whoâ€™s working may be moving more, so more blood is getting to the uterine wall.â€
Studies have shown links between a motherâ€™s health and autism. A 2016 study found that excessive levels of folate during pregnancy tripled the risk for a child with autism.
The future of testing embryos for autism
â€œOften the symptoms of autism are neurological soft signs that canâ€™t be easily diagnosed in pregnancy,â€ Dr. Levine said of prenatal screening of the disorder.
Still, parents undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) are eager to screen for autism, but the technology to do so still doesnâ€™t exist. â€œWe still cannot test embryos for autism, but I can see that happening once we identify a causative agent in the gene,â€ Dr. Levine clarified.
Start-ups are eager to deliver on the requests of families undergoing IVF that want to add autism to the list of diseases to screen their embryos for.
Dr. Aimee Eyvazzadeh, a reproductive endocrinologist based in the San Francisco area, said that patients ask her to test their embryos for autism all the time. She said the reality isnâ€™t far off. â€œItâ€™s about a year and a half away, but there is a company thatâ€™s going to be testing embryos genetically for autism.â€
Dr. Eyvazzadeh is currently able to perform a screening for high-risk autism genes on sperm.
If prospective parents find out the father carries some high-risk genes that are significantly associated with autism, it allows them to decide whether or not to use a sperm donor before they create embryos.
The Reproductive Technology Council of Western Australia uses a different work- around for prenatal screenings of autism before the test exists. It allows women going through IVF who are at a very high risk of having a child with autism to be implanted with female embryos only, since the prevalence of the disorder in males is much higher.
Neurodiversity as an emerging viewpoint of autism
â€œNeurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome,â€ according to John Elder Robison, a neurodiversity scholar at the College of William & Mary who has Aspergerâ€™s himself.
Robison noted that â€œStudies show that 20 percent of high school students are in some way neurodiverse.â€
In a culture that celebrates innovation, companies are discovering that there are advantages to having autistic employees, who see and solve problems differently than neurotypical employees.
Several prominent companies like SAP, JP Morgan Chase, and IBM are even starting outreach and hiring initiatives to recruit employees with autism.
They realize neurodiverse employees bring unique, and often exceptional, skills and problem-solving methods to the workforce. Between increases in productivity and innovative ideas, companies see employees on the autism spectrum as a competitive advantage.
So rather than view difference as a disorder, neurodiversity advocates see the spectrum of neurological functioning as our reality. They believe that including people on the spectrum in schools and companies will allow us to tap into the full extent of the human intellect.
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