Until recently, autism ranked among the least understood and least studied developmental disorders. Over the past few decades, psychologists and physicians have conducted a large volume of research on autism spectrum disorders and contributed greatly to overall understanding and awareness. In this section, I will discuss some of the most popular areas of autism research, as well as promising new leads in autism diagnosis and treatment, though my list is by no means exhaustive.
In recent years, researchers have made considerable progress in identifying the genetic and genomic aspects of autism spectrum disorders. In general, genetics researchers focus on the genes and combinations of genes shared by individuals with autism, as well as certain hereditary factors that contribute to disorders on the autism spectrum. Thanks to many years of research, genetic testing plays a vital role in early detection of autism, as well as associated medical conditions such as epilepsy, fragile X syndrome, DiGeorge syndrome, Pheland-McDermid syndrome, and Angelman syndrome. In preparation for future research, BGI (formerly known as the Beijing Genomics Institute) compiled DNA samples from over 10,000 individuals with autism, which it plans to use to sequence important genomes related to autism.
While genetics represents an important component of autism spectrum disorders, environmental factors have also been strongly correlated with autism symptoms and diagnoses. In particular, environmental toxins such as valproic acid and thalidomide have been correlated with an increased risk of autism. Aside from toxic chemicals, researchers have established a link between autism spectrum disorders and influences such as maternal nutrition, infection during pregnancy, and parental age at the time of conception. In the future, organizations such as the Environmental Epidemiology of Autism Research Network (EEARN) plan to expand on existing research areas and compile more data from families with a history of autism.
In addition to researching the underlying causes of autism spectrum disorders, researchers have conducted extensive research into effective treatment. For several decades, researchers have identified age at the time of diagnosis as one of the most reliable predictors of treatment efficacy. The average age of diagnosis occurs between four and five years of age, but psychological and medical tests can predict autism spectrum disorders as early as 18 to 24 months. The earlier children receive a diagnosis and begin treatment, the more likely they are to increase IQ and improve daily functioning. For many years, researchers have attempted to educate people about the importance of early treatment and forge a united front among parents, teachers, health care professionals, and community advocates.
Along with studies that focus on causes and treatment, there is increasing research into the unique challenges faced by individuals on the autism spectrum and how these individuals are doing compared with peers with other disabilities and those with no disability. There is still a significant lack of data that distinguishes autism spectrum disorders from other developmental or physical disabilities, but increasing numbers of researchers are beginning to focus on ASD while studying subjects such as unemployment rates and academic performance. For example, a 2012 study led by Dr. Paul Shattuck examined rates of postsecondary education and employment of youth on the autism spectrum. The study concluded that two years after high school, these youth were at higher risk of unemployment and below-average education, and further concluded that these risks were even higher for individuals from lower-income backgrounds. Research into the experiences of youth and adults with ASD is crucial because the identification of unique hardships for individuals on the autism spectrum enables caretakers and advocacy groups to work proactively to provide these individuals with the education and resources they need to overcome these obstacles.
Global Public Health
While the U.S. enjoys a fairly advanced system of care for autism spectrum disorders, many countries around the world lack any sort of institutionalized system of care. To increase education and awareness of autism, organizations such as Global Autism Public Health (GAPH) reach out to physicians and sponsor partnerships with community leaders in counties such as India, Taiwan, Albania, Ethiopia, and many more.