Home > Science > What is Causing Autism Prevalence to Increase? – Part 1

What is Causing Autism Prevalence to Increase? – Part 1

This part 1 of a 2 part series is from Michael Rosanoff and Andy Shih who both work in the Autism Speaks science department. The first post is from Michael Rosanoff. Both guest bloggers bios are below the post.

It’s been just over a week but by now most of us have heard that the new autism statistics are out and no less frightening – 1 percent. So the question on everyone’s mind is what is causing this astounding increase in prevalence? Fortunately, in addition to measuring how prevalent autism is in a population, epidemiology can help piece together the rest of the puzzle by examining what is causing autism to be so prevalent. Part of the approach is to tease out some of the “non-casual” factors contributing to the increase over time such as changes in how autism is diagnosed and increasing awareness. While we can’t yet see the full picture, recent research from the U.S. and around the world is showing us that while these factors are clearly playing a role in the rise in autism prevalence, they cannot account for the dramatic increase alone. Epidemiology research can shed light on some of the genetic and environmental factors driving this rise in prevalence, and once we uncover the causes or risk-factors, we can more effectively develop ways to manage this growing problem.

Currently, Autism Speaks is supporting and advising on a number of large-scale epidemiology studies in the U.S. that look at environmental factors potentially contributing to the rise in autism prevalence. These include the EARLI Study, CHARGE, and the National Children’s Study.  In addition, international epidemiology research has been an area of major focus for Autism Speaks. In 2004, Autism Speaks and the CDC (in fact, the authors of the latest prevalence study) co-developed the International Autism Epidemiology Network to promote collaboration and facilitate research among autism epidemiologists worldwide. Today, the network includes over 100 scientists from more than 30 countries.

International research presents unique opportunities to understand the etiology, or causes, of autism by studying different ethnic groups in countries with different environmental conditions than found in the U.S. alone. Epidemiologists can make comparisons of autism prevalence across nations as a means of generating clues about the involvement of genes or environmental exposures. Additionally, some nations have special resources, such as health registries and surveillance systems that can generate large datasets and make previously impossible studies on autism possible. Autism Speaks is currently supporting the iCARE project which combines data from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Israel, and Australia to investigate pre- and peri-natal risk factors for autism.

So what we have now is mounting evidence that autism is a major public health issue and epidemiologists have the tools to investigate why autism is more prevalent now than ever before.  The question remaining is what are we going to do about it?  How are we going to enable the necessary research? Autism Speaks is answering the call through our supported research efforts, but our efforts alone are simply not enough to help the 1 percent of the U.S. and possibly global population affected by autism. We need answers and with more support, research will provide the answers families need.

Author Bios

Andy Shih, Ph.D., Vice President of Scientific Affairs at Autism Speaks

Andy Shih, Ph.D. is the Vice President of Scientific Affairs at Autism Speaks, where he oversees the etiology portfolio, which includes research in genetics, environmental sciences, and epidemiology. He was responsible for the formation and development of Autism Speaks sponsored international autism research collaborations, the Autism Genome Project and the Baby Siblings Research Consortium. Andy also leads Autism Speaks’ international scientific development efforts, such as the Global Autism Public Health Initiative (GAPH). Andy joined the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR) in 2002.

Prior to joining NAAR, Andy had served as an industry consultant and was a member of the faculty at Yeshiva University and New York University Medical Center. He earned his Ph.D. in cellular and molecular biology from New York University Medical Center.

Andy’s research background includes published studies in gene identification and characterization, virus-cell interaction, and cell-cycle regulation. He was instrumental in the cloning of a family of small GTPases involved in cell-cycle control and nuclear transport, and holds three patents on nucleic acids-based diagnostics and therapeutics. Andy is a resident of Queens, where he lives with his wife, daughter and son.

Michael Rosanoff, Assistant Director of Public Health Research and Scientific Review

Michael Rosanoff, MPH, is a member of Autism Speaks etiology team and manages the organization’s epidemiology and public heath research grants.  Since joining the organization in 2007, Michael has been the staff lead in overseeing the International Autism Epidemiology Network (IAEN) and is part of the development team for the Global Autism Public Health Initiative (GAPH). He is also a member of Autism Speaks Grants Division, helping oversee the administration of the organization’s grant-making process for research.

Prior to joining Autism Speaks, Michael conducted independent research at the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center, a clinical, epidemiological and genetic research center at Columbia University Medical Center focused on developmental disorders of the nervous system. His research background is in genetic and psychiatric epidemiology as well as behavioral neuroscience, with publications in the fields of epilepsy and depression. Michael earned his Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) in epidemiology from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and currently resides in Jersey City, N.J.

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