Autism is a disorder that can impair one’s social, cognitive, and verbal skills.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by repetitive behaviors, deficits in socioemotional empathy, impairments in both verbal and non-verbal communications, as well as sometimes in cognitive abilities. Depending on the severity of the diagnosis, people with autism may experience numerous problems with social interactions even as an adult.

The Facts about Autism

Based on the analyses of medical records from 11 select sites, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that autism impacts about 1 in 59 children in the United States, and this frequency has been on the rise. In addition, the disorder can be an enormous financial burden on families; medical expenses can be $4,100-$6,200 per year¹ higher for families with autism compared to families without autism, and rigorous behavioral interventions may cost up to $60,000 per child per year.²

Identified Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism is thought to be caused by both genetic and environmental factors. No single gene can explain most cases of autism, and many cases seem to arise without any evidence of family history. Some researchers have suggested that maternal immune activation – excessive maternal immune system activity during pregnancy – may increase the risk of the offspring having neurologic and psychiatric disorders.³

Diagnosis

Currently, the most widely practiced method of diagnosis is through behavioral evaluations. Symptoms generally begin to emerge between 6 and 12 months after birth, and a reliable diagnosis by a medical professional can be made by the age of 2. This, however, may be too late to ensure an effective intervention.

Neuroimaging techniques have been shown to be promising in diagnosing infants that are as young as 6 months of age, but because of their high costs and the parents’ reluctance to have neuroimaging done on their children, the method is too difficult for common use.

Intervention

Early behavioral therapies and education have been shown to be effective in alleviating the symptoms of autism. One of the interventional methods, Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), was shown to improve the IQ of children with autism between 18 and 30 months of age by 17.6 points (1 SD = 15 points), compared to 7.0 points in the control group that was offered widely-available interventional measures.

 

Of course, early interventional programs are not bullet-proof. It is not clear whether such educational programs are effective for older children. Furthermore, because of the variability in results, behavioral interventions may not be effective for all preschool children.

Can we do better?

Is there a way to predict autism right after birth and incorporate novel, more effective treatment methods? Surprisingly, the answer may be in the skin.

1. Shimabukuro, Tom T., et al. “Medical Expenditures for Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder in a Privately Insured Population.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol. 38, no. 3, 2007, pp. 546–552., doi:10.1007/s10803-007-0424-y.

 

2. Amendah, Djesika, et al. “The Economic Costs of Autism: A Review.” Autism Spectrum Disorders, 2011, pp. 1347–1360., doi:10.1093/med/9780195371826.003.0088.

 

3. Estes, M. L., and A. K. Mcallister. “Maternal Immune Activation: Implications for Neuropsychiatric Disorders.” Science, vol. 353, no. 6301, 2016, pp. 772–777., doi:10.1126/science.aag3194.

 

4. Hazlett, Heather Cody, et al. “Early Brain Development in Infants at High Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Nature, vol. 542, no. 7641, 2017, pp. 348–351., doi:10.1038/nature21369.

 

5. Dawson, G., et al. “Randomized, Controlled Trial of an Intervention for Toddlers With Autism: The Early Start Denver Model.” Pediatrics, vol. 125, no. 1, 2009, doi:10.1542/peds.2009-0958.

 

6. Howlin, Patricia, et al. “Systematic Review of Early Intensive Behavioral Interventions for Children With Autism.” American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, vol. 114, no. 1, 2009, pp. 23–41., doi:10.1352/2009.114:23-41.

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