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What We Still Don't Know About Autism

In the United States, one in 59 students is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), up from one in 150 in the year 2000. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ASD is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. What this means is that many general education settings include students who have special needs. Unfortunately, many classroom teachers have little or no training on how best to work with these students.

What We DO Know From the CDC — Risk Factors

Almost half (44 percent) of children identified with ASD have average to above-average intellectual ability.

  • Children are at a higher risk of being on the autism spectrum if they are born to older parents.
  • ASD tends to occur more often in people with certain genetic or chromosomal conditions such as Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, or tuberous sclerosis.
  • Parents who have a child with ASD have a 2 to 18 percent chance of having a second child who is also affected.
  • Among identical twins, if one has ASD, the other will be affected about 36 to 95 percent of the time. Among non-identical twins, the chance is 0 to 31 percent of the time.
  • Children born prematurely or with low birth weight may be at greater risk for having ASD.
  • In 83 percent of the cases, ASD co-occurs with other developmental, psychiatric, neurologic, chromosomal and genetic conditions.

Although ASD can be diagnosed reliably at age 2, most children are not diagnosed until after 4 years of age. Parents typically notice a developmental problem before their child's first birthday, but autism often presents as a vision and/or hearing concern. Differences in social, communication and fine motor skills can be evident from as early as six months of age.

News About Autism Shows What We Don't Know

Spectrum News recently reported on a study of the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) of autism therapy. However, this much-touted behavioral therapy may not be as effective as its creators had hoped. In a trial involving three study sites, children treated with ESDM showed some improvement in their language at two of the three sites but did not produce the results that the creators were expecting.

ESDM involves a fairly intensive effort by parents or caregivers who use the child's interests to practice several skills at the same time. Some independent experts not involved with the study point out that other therapies, like the Preschool Autism Communication Trial (PACT) and the Joint Attention, Symbolic Play, Engagement & Regulation approach (JASPER), require only a fraction of the time needed by ESDM. PACT delivers sustained improvements in autism traits, and JASPER benefits language skills.

Brain Studies May Yield Clues to Autism

Searching for clues to autism, new research suggests that the brain's emotion center, the amygdala, undergoes dramatic changes during the first year of life. The study found that the amygdala of young autistic children may have an unusually large number of neurons. Post-mortem brain studies suggest that in autistic people, the region has structural abnormalities. While interesting, these findings highlight the need for continued research to understand how connectivity patterns of the amygdala relate to autism.

Blood Test for Autism

Doctors are now able to order a blood test that may help flag autism, but experts have concerns about the test. It may not be appropriate for use in clinics, and one expert fears it may even delay children's diagnoses. Recently developed by Wisconsin-based Stemina Biomarker Discovery, the test was first made available in November 2018.

Although scientists and parents alike have long been interested in a biological test for autism, it appears to be too early to tell if this test is the solution that has long been sought.

Prenatal Vitamin Use and Autism

A new study suggests that women who take prenatal vitamins during the first month of pregnancy are half as likely to have a child with autism as those who do not. The recent publication of these results has caused a flurry of interest, but since the study was small and was not designed to look for cause-and-effect relationships, experts are reluctant to draw a conclusion.               

To prevent birth defects, health organizations recommend prenatal vitamins for pregnant women. But these guidelines should not be interpreted to mean taking more prenatal vitamins is better, says lead investigator Rebecca Schmidt, assistant professor of public health sciences at the University of California, Davis MIND Institute. 

What these various studies clearly show is that the cause, diagnosis and treatment of autism are all complex. In addition, these preliminary findings require more substantiation to provide relevant conclusions. 

Specialized Training Helps Teachers Work With Autistic Children

Teachers who understand more about autism and how to work with students on the spectrum are better prepared to deal with the challenges these students face. Educators interested in receiving in-depth training on evidence-based practices for teaching individuals on the autism spectrum can enroll in a Master of Arts in Special Education – Autism online program from the University of Texas of the Permian Basin (UTPB).

This is an accelerated, 100-percent-online program that focuses on technology integration and practical application. Graduates of this program learn intervention strategies from faculty experienced in working with students with autism. Those who enter the program with a teaching certificate and want to pursue the University Certificate in Autism and Developmental Disabilities will be prepared to sit for the certification exam.

Learn more about the UTPB Master of Arts in Special Education – Autism online program.


CDC: Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder 

Spectrum: News About Autism 

Profectum: Joint Attention, Symbolic Play, Engagement & Regulation (JASPER) Treatment and Approach

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