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Lecture examines science of autism

Carolynn Smith | Tuesday, February 9, 2010

 Guest speaker Joshua  Diehl, director of the Notre Dame Center for Children and Families, presented “Solving the Autism Puzzle” Monday evening on Saint Mary’s campus as part of Student Diversity Board’s Disabilities Awareness Week events.

Diehl explained what autism is, what it looks like and what science tells us about autism. Diehl began with a brief history of autism. He said it was once believed that autism was not a biological issue — a theory that has now been discredited.

“The blame for this condition was on cold parents,” Diehl said. “Research has been wrong on this issue for a long time.”
Some research shows autism appears to be on the rise, but Diehl said it is difficult to find solid statistics to show this. 
“Now that we know more and more about autism, we are diagnosing more kids at 8, 9 and 10 years old,” Diehl said.
Diehl said there have been expanding definitions and increasing awareness about autism and this could lead to the increase of children diagnosed with autism.
“There has been a huge increase in interest about autism and our own awareness. And awareness leads to more diagnoses,” Diehl said.
He then spoke on the criticism that autism has been over-diagnosed. He said he believes autism is over-diagnosed but also under-diagnosed. Autism may be under-diagnosed in smaller communities due to lack of resources or awareness. But it also may be over-diagnosed in larger communities so children can have increased services.
Diehl also examined some causes of autism. He explained the causes of autism are most likely both genetic and environmental.
“The majority of cases seem to originate from a complex genetic predisposition,” he said. “Anywhere from three to 10 genes contribute. We do know that it is four times more common in males than it is in females.”
There are some people who believe that vaccines can cause autism, Diehl said. But there is no direct evidence or research that can prove or disprove this.
“A small minority of children can have reactions to vaccines that could lead to a neurodevelopmental disorder, although all large scale research studies show no link between autism and vaccines,” Diehl said.
This controversial issue led to a rift between some parents and some members of the medical community.
“Even if there is a link between vaccines and autism, it would probably only explain a small number of cases. Not vaccinating a child likely puts them at a greater risk for neurodevelopmental disorders,” Diehl said.
The best intervention is early intervention. There is no cure for autism but there are multiple treatments such as medications and alternative approaches like special diets and different supplements.
“Treatment must get as much attention as identification and finding the causes and I support parents trying to do all that they can for their children,” Diehl said.