In recent years, several reports have suggested that children with autism or other learning or behavioral developmental disabilities are more likely than typically developing children to have health conditions such as respiratory or gastrointestinal illnesses.
However the studies behind these reports were often small and showed inconsistent findings. Some of their methods had limitations. One of the biggest problems was that they didn’t adequately compare children with different types of developmental disabilities. Because of these limitations, many public health professionals and healthcare providers have been skeptical about whether children with autism or other behavioral developmental disabilities truly faced an elevated risk of other medical problems.
My colleagues and I wanted to help paint a clearer picture of this important public health issue. Our study, recently published in the journal Research in Developmental Disabilities, compared the medical conditions and healthcare needs of children with developmental disabilities with those of children without developmental disabilities. We also compared children with autism with those who had other developmental disabilities.
We assessed children included in the National Health Interview Surveys from 2006 to 2010. Households throughout the United States are randomly selected to participate in this annual survey. In households with children, one child is randomly selected to participate. Each child’s parent or other primary caregiver is interviewed in-person about the child’s health and development. Interviewers asked whether a doctor or other healthcare provider has ever told them the child has certain conditions including autism and several other developmental disabilities. We also ask if the child has a health condition such as asthma or has experienced other symptoms such as frequent diarrhea or colitis in the past year.
We included more than 41,000 children aged 3 to 17 years in the study. Of these, 5,469 had one or more of the following five developmental disabilities: autism, intellectual disability, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disability or other developmental delay.
As a group, these children had higher than expected rates of all of the medical conditions we studied. More specifically, they were:
* 1.8 times more likely than children without developmental disabilities to have ever had an asthma diagnosis,
* 1.6 times more likely to have had eczema or a skin allergy during the past year,
* 1.8 times more likely to have had a food allergy during the past year,
* 2.1 times more likely to have had three or more ear infections during the past year,
* 2.2 times more likely to have had frequent severe headaches or migraines during the past year, and
* 3.5 times more likely to have had frequent diarrhea or colitis during the past year.
These increased rates of health conditions held true even for children diagnosed with ADHD or learning disability, but not diagnosed with autism or intellectual disability.
However, one finding stood out in particular when we compared the developmental disability groups to each other: Children with autism were twice as likely as children with ADHD, learning disability or other developmental delay to have had frequent diarrhea or colitis during the past year. They were seven times more likely to have experienced these gastrointestinal problems than were children without any developmental disability.
This detailed assessment demonstrates that children with autism or many other types of developmental disabilities do, in fact, face an increased risk for many common health conditions. This, in turn, provides evidence that children with developmental disabilities require increased health services and specialist services, both for their core functional deficits and for health problems beyond their core developmental disabilities.
Reference: Schieve LA, Gonzales V, Boulet SL, Visser SN, Rice CE, Van Naarden-Braun K, Boyle CA. Concurrent medical conditions and health care use and needs among children with learning and behavioral developmental disabilities, National Health Interview Survey, 2006-2010. Res Dev Disabil. 2011;33:467-76.
Many in our community are understandably concerned that a planned revision of the medical definition of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) will restrict its diagnosis in ways that will prevent many persons from receiving vital medical and social services.
Before I catch you up on some of the details behind this revision, let me first say that although the proposed changes have a solid scientific rationale, we at Autism Speaks are likewise concerned about their effect on access to services. It is crucial that these changes don’t result in discrimination against people who are struggling with autism symptoms. As the APA moves forward in formalizing the new definition, we urge that this issue be kept at the forefront of the discussion. As the changes are implemented, scientists, families and providers will all need to carefully monitor its impact on those affected by all forms of ASD. The bottom line is this: We must ensure that all those who struggle with autism symptoms get the services they need.
Now let me provide some background.
The APA is currently completing work on the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which will be published in 2013. The DSM is the standard reference that healthcare providers use to diagnose mental and behavioral conditions. As such, it influences availability of treatments as well as insurance coverage.
An expert panel appointed by the APA has proposed that the new version of the DSM change the current definition of ASD, in part because of shortcomings in how it is currently used for diagnosis. The new definition would do three things. First, it would eliminate the previously separate categories of Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) from the diagnostic manual. Second, it would fold these disorders, together with “classic” autism, into the single category of ASD. Finally, it would change the criteria for diagnosing ASD.
Under the current definition, a person can qualify for an ASD diagnosis by exhibiting at least 6 of 12 behaviors that include deficits in social interaction, communication or repetitive behaviors. Under the proposed definition, the person would have to exhibit three deficits in social interaction and communication and at least two repetitive behaviors. The APA has also proposed that a new category be added to the DSM – Social Communication Disorder. This would allow for a diagnosis of disability in social communication without the presence of repetitive behavior.
Based on a recent study, some experts are suggesting that many individuals who currently meet the criteria for ASD, especially those who are more cognitively capable, would no longer meet criteria for ASD. If so, the new criteria would result in discrimination against people who are more cognitively capable. We are concerned about this and will do all we can to ensure that all people who are struggling with autism symptoms retain the services they deserve.
As these new criteria are rolled out over the coming year, Autism Speaks’ position is that it will be vitally important to collect meaningful information on how the change impacts access to services by those affected by autism symptoms. Further policy changes may be needed to ensure that all persons who struggle with autism symptoms get the services they need.
It is important to keep in mind that this revision in the medical definition of ASD is not just an academic exercise. These changes in diagnostic criteria will likely have important influences on the lives of those in our community who critically need services.
[Editor's note: Please see the Autism Speaks policy statement on the DSM-5 revisions and a related FAQ here.]
Tune-in today to hear Autism Speaks’ leadership discuss the recently released analysis of the DSM-5, to be published in 2013, and hear about its potential implications for individuals to receive an autism diagnosis and appropriate services.
- Then, please join us for a live web chat at 3 pm Eastern with Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Dr. Geraldine Dawson and Vice President of Family Services Lisa Goring – click on the tab on the Autism Speaks Facebook page to join in!
Watch Autism Speaks’ Dr. Andy Shih discuss the story on MSNBC “News Nation with Tamron Hall”
If you’ve been following autism research in recent years, you have probably read—many times—that familial, or inherited, risk is seldom the whole picture. A few inherited genes are sufficient by themselves to cause autism. But most so-called “autism genes” only increase the risk that an infant will go on to develop this developmental disorder. As is the case in many complex diseases, it appears that autism often results from a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental triggers.
This is where epigenetics comes in. Epigenetics is the study of the factors that control gene expression, and this control is mediated by chemicals that surround a gene’s DNA. Environmental epigenetics looks at how outside influences modify these epigenetic chemicals, or “markers,” and so affect genetic activity.
It is important to remember that scientists use the term “environment” to refer to much more than pollutants and other chemical exposures. Researchers use this term to refer to pretty much any influence beyond genetic mutation. Parental age at time of conception, for example, is an environmental influence associated with increased risk of autism, as are birth complications that involve oxygen deprivation to an infant’s brain.
Because epigenetics gives us a way to look at the interaction between genes and environment, it holds great potential for identifying ways to prevent or reduce the risk of autism. It may also help us develop medicines and other interventions that can target disabling symptoms. We have written about epigenetics previously on this blog (here and here). So in this answer, I’d like to focus on the progress reported at a recent meeting hosted by Autism Speaks.
The Environmental Epigenetics of Autism Spectrum Disorders symposium, held in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 8, was the first of its kind. The meeting brought together more than 30 leaders in autism neurobiology, genetics and epidemiology with investigators in the epigenetics of other complex disorders to promote cross-disciplinary collaborations and identify opportunities for future studies.
Rob Waterland, of Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, described epidemiological studies and animal research that suggested how maternal nutrition during pregnancy can affect epigenetic markers in the brain cells of offspring.
Julie Herbstman, of Columbia University, described research that associated epigenetic changes in umbilical cord blood with a mother’s exposure to air pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are already infamous for their association with cancer and heart disease.
Rosanna Weksberg, of the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto, discussed findings that suggest how assisted reproductive technology may lead to changes in epigenetically regulated gene expression. This was of particular interest because assisted reproduction has been associated with ASD. Taking this one step further, Michael Skinner, of Washington State University, discussed “transgenerational epigenetic disease” and described research suggesting that exposures during pregnancy produce epigenetic changes that are then inherited through subsequent generations.
Arthur Beaudet, of Baylor College of Medicine, discussed a gene mutation that controls availability of the amino acid carnitine. This genetic mutation has been found to be more prevalent among children with ASD than among non-affected children, suggesting that it might be related to some subtypes of autism. Further study is needed to follow up on the suggestion that dietary supplementation of carnitine might help individuals with ASD who have this mutation. Caution is needed, however. As Laura Schaevitz, of Tufts University in Massachusetts, pointed out, studies with animal models of autism suggest that dietary supplementation may produce only temporary improvements in symptoms of neurodevelopmental disorders.
So what does this all mean for research that aims to help those currently struggling with autism? The meeting participants agreed that the role of epigenetics in ASD holds great promise but remains understudied and insufficiently understood. For clearer answers, they called for more research examining epigenetic changes in brain tissues. This type of research depends on bequeathed postmortem brain tissue, and Autism Speaks Autism Tissue Program is one of the field’s most important repositories. (Find more information on becoming an ATP family here).
The field also needs large epidemiological studies looking at epigenetic markers in blood samples taken over the course of a lifetime. One such study is the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI). More information on participating in EARLI can be found here.
Autism Speaks remains committed to supporting and guiding environmental epigenetics as a highly important area of research. We look forward to reporting further results in the coming year and years.
Got more questions? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more autism research news and perspective on the science page.
Earlier this week, the LA Times ran a provocative article under the questioning headline above. It suggested that autism’s twentyfold increase over the last generation may be “more of a surge in diagnosis than in disease.” In fact, scientific evidence suggests that autism’s dramatic increase is only partially explained by improved screening and diagnosis.
Some of the clearest evidence of this increase comes from research documenting a 600 percent jump in autism caseload in California between 1992 and 2006. In related studies (here and here), Peter Bearman estimated that around 42 percent of the increase can be explained by changes in diagnostic methods and awareness with another 11 percent possibly due to increases in parental age at the time of conception (a known risk factor).
Taking into account all the factors that have been studied, this leaves approximately half of the increase due to still-unidentified factors. Through research, we’re increasing our understanding of these influences. For example, we now know that prematurity and extreme low-birth weight increase autism risk in babies. Certainly survival rates for premature and very low birth weight infants have increased considerably over the last twenty years.
While no single factor is likely to explain the marked increase in autism’s prevalence, researchers agree that a number of influences likely work together to determine the risk that a child will develop an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Bottom line: It is undeniable that more children are being diagnosed with ASD than ever before. The need for increased funding for autism science and services has never been greater. Autism costs society is a staggering $35 billion per year. And with more cases, that figure is likely to increase. Fortunately, there is clear evidence that earlier identification and intervention and supports throughout the lifespan can improve outcomes and quality of life.
If you are concerned about your child’s development, please see the “Learn the Signs” page of our website. If you are an adult struggling with issues that might be related to autism, please follow the hyperlinks to our resource page for adults and our page on Asperger Syndrome.
Got more questions? Send them to GotQuestions@autismspeaks.org. And join our next live webchat with Dr. Dawson and her co-host, Autism Speaks assistant vice president and head of medical research Joe Horrigan, MD on January 5th. More information on their monthly webchats here.
I still remember the day in 2009 when I was sitting in the committee hearing room of our state capitol. We were waiting for the next parent to testify in favor of our Autism Insurance Reform bill—in its second year of battle here in Missouri. Many moms and dads sat in the back with me, clutching their note cards, printed testimonials and handwritten pages. Though we were all nervous, we were eager to tell our stories to the legislators whose decision could make such a huge difference in our children’s lives.
Megan was a local volunteer, autism advocate and parent of two children, one of whom (Henry) has autism. Her hands were shaking a little, but she delivered her message in a calm and confident voice. She was confident the legislators would respond to her personal testimony. Megan explained that she was in extreme debt, had declared bankruptcy and had to sell her home—all to pay for Henry’s autism behavioral treatment. But Megan was not there to complain. She wanted to share Henry’s progress and positive outcomes. Thanks to more than 20 hours a week of early behavioral intervention, Henry had uttered his first words. She told the legislators that her financial sacrifices were well worth that precious reward. But she asked that other families not have to sell their homes and declare bankruptcy for their children to receive treatment for autism. I was not the only one wiping tears at the end of her story.
But the next individual who testified opposed our Autism Insurance Bill. He represented an insurance provider, and he used the same argument that insurance lobbyists were feeding the legislators across the country. “Although we empathize with Megan’s struggle,” he said, “the simple fact is that behavioral therapy is an experimental treatment for autism.” He said it was reckless for insurance providers to pay for experimental therapies and that despite Henry’s improvement, there was no predicting whether other children would benefit.
His words produced gasps around the room. My heart sank.
But wait, this is where the story gets good. Next, Lorri Unumb, Autism Speaks vice president for state government affairs, took the stand. She too shared the progress of her son from intensive applied behavioral analysis (ABA). But it was the next part of her testimonial that every legislator in the room heard loud and clear.
Countering the insurance industry testimony head-on, Lorri stated unequivocally, “ABA is not experimental!” And she had the published research studies to back up her statement.
It didn’t matter whether the studies were done in Missouri or another state. Each study had been vetted and published by a leading scientific journal. The evidence made clear that ABA is far from experimental, and it demonstrated the importance of early intervention in producing the most successful outcomes.
The Missouri House of Representatives voted our bill out of committee that day. It went on to our governor’s desk to be signed into law—all because we had the scientific research to back up our efforts.
Never before had the importance of funding research become so clear to me!
Currently Autism Speaks is funding additional studies that can provide a firm foundation for our advocating that insurers cover additional types of behavioral therapy–such as social skills training, infant-toddler interventions and cognitive behavioral therapies focused on social and communication skills.
And that’s crucial because the downside to our story was that the Missouri bill mandated coverage for some but not all autism treatments. Many more treatment options need to be further investigated to ensure they are safe and produce tangible benefits for those who struggle with autism.
The great news is that Autism Speaks just funded $1.8 million in treatment grants that will further our understanding of the most promising new interventions—not only for children but for all those on the spectrum—from early intervention therapies in underserved communities to job interview training for adults.
We look to these studies to give us the ammunition we’ll need the next time we are sitting in front of a room full of government decision makers. And they would not be possible without your support at our Walks and other fundraisers.
When it comes to helping our children and all those with autism, scientific evidence of benefit puts us on the road to affordable access to therapy. And that means better outcomes. This is what our families deserve and our mission supports.
Autism Speaks continues to work for state-mandated medical coverage for autism interventions. To date, its advocacy efforts have helped secure autism insurance reform laws in 29 states. To learn more about Autism Speaks advocacy efforts, please visit http://www.autismvotes.org.
For more news and perspective, please visit the Autism Speaks science page.
This invited guest blog by psychologist Hilde Geurts, PhD, comes from the Netherlands, which the Autism Speaks science staff recently visited to forge new partnerships with European researchers and family advocates.
If you’re over 55, you’re probably not as fast as you used to be. Perhaps you more easily become emotional. Sometimes you have trouble adapting to changes in your everyday environment. In other words, you’re aging.
Some of these age-related declines are related to brain changes. But what if adapting to a changing environment or controlling your emotions was already difficult when you were young?
Autism is a lifelong condition with a distinct set of strengths and weakness. The weaknesses often involve mental and psychological skills known to deteriorate with aging. Does this mean that these abilities will deteriorate faster with age than they would if you didn’t have autism? Or might your “autistic” brain find ways to compensate?
These are the overarching questions that drive our research project: “Aging & Autism: Double Jeopardy?
We are conducting this five-year study at the University of Amsterdam within the Dutch Autism and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) research center (d’Arc). The goal is to understand what happens when people with autism age. In essence, we’re testing the hypothesis that aging follows a different trajectory in those with autism spectrum disorder than it does in others.
Before starting this project, we spoke to persons with autism who were between the ages of 53 and 83 years. We asked them how they thought aging affected their lives.
Some said that some of the difficulties they had in childhood or young adulthood had become less prominent. They described feeling more comfortable in a variety of social situations—perhaps because the social pressure to act in specific ways had become less intense than when they were young. Others felt that their sensitivity to stimuli such as sounds had increased and that this made them more irritable. In other words, their experiences varied.
On one thing they agreed: That research in this area was sorely needed. Happily, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research agreed with that assessment and provided us with a grant to study autism and aging.
What have we planned for the next five years?
First, we want to determine whether or not some autism-related symptoms tend to ease with age.
Second, we’ll be searching for ways to determine whose cognitive challenges will ease, whose will remain stable and whose will become more severe as they age.
Third, we’ll be investigating how these different outcomes might relate to changes within the brain.
Early results suggest that with some cognitive abilities—such as memory for pictures—the drop in function is steeper for those with autism. But with other skills—such as being creative under time pressure—those with autism show little or no decrease in performance, while those without autism tend to experience steep declines.
It may be that, in some areas, the effects of aging have less of a negative effect on those with autism. I do hope that this is the case. Of course, we’re just now getting started with this research. I look forward to reporting back our findings!
Read more news and perspective on the Autism Speaks Science page.