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Decoding Autism

September 23, 2010 17 comments

This is a guest post by Sara Lee Kessler, the reporter, producer, and writer of “Decoding Autism” on NJN Public Television. “Decoding Autism” will premier on Monday, September 27 at 9pm EDT on NJN1. Viewers can also watch online here.

I have been NJ Public Television’s Health & Medical Correspondent for nearly 15 years, and have done stories on every medical condition imaginable. Autism is the most heartbreaking topic.  It’s heartbreaking both because it wreaks havoc with parents’ emotions and dreams for their children and because it frustrates the child who can not express his needs. Autism spectrum disorder is a devastating diagnosis, especially because there is no known cause and no cure.

When I first started reporting on autism, in 1997, it was rare.  Few people had heard of it.  Today, it’s unusual to meet someone who doesn’t know a family that’s impacted by autism.  Some people are calling it an epidemic because the numbers keep going up. One in 110 children is now being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Here in New Jersey, the rates are one in 94, which has the highest prevalence rate in the nation. While there’s disagreement on whether the ever-rising autism prevalence rate constitutes an epidemic, I think we can all agree that, at the very least, it’s a major public health crisis!

That’s the reason, even after doing at least 30 “Healthwatch” reports on autism, that I decided to delve deeper into the topic and produce a documentary. Over the last eighteen-months, I have interviewed autism experts, educators and dozens of parents, children, and scientists for this project. But, ultimately, I decided that “Decoding Autism,” should focus on  what doctors know, what scientists are finding out, and how the flurry of autism research across the nation is starting to shed light on this mysterious disorder.

What I’d like to share with you, and what’s most encouraging to me, is that some of the best minds in the nation are working on autism.  They are researchers who are looking for and who have discovered gene variants involved in autism.  They are psychologists or neuroscientists who are conducting infant-sibling studies on “at risk” children, meaning infants who have an older brother or sister on the autism spectrum.  It was amazing to learn that infants who go on to develop autism spectrum disorders tend to look at a mother’s mouth, rather than her eyes, missing important social cues.  So, that’s why so many children with autism tend to be mind-blind!  Everyone I interviewed shed so much light on the subject of autism.

I was particularly fascinated by what researchers told me about the brains of children with autism.  I learned that, at core, autism is a brain connectivity disorder that causes signaling delays. No wonder children with ASD have trouble communicating!  One expert told me that the brain of a child with autism has a tangled web of abnormal neural connections that fail to prune at critical stages and that the brain of such a child tends to be larger.

I also learned that we should be talking about the “autisms,” with an “s,” rather than autism, because, just like cancer, there are many different types of autism. Scientists say it’s critical that they find biomarkers, so they can develop treatment targets. As you’ll surmise when you watch “Decoding Autism,” I’m optimistic that today’s research will lead to tomorrow’s prevention strategies, earlier intervention, better therapies and, even cures.  That’s critical because parents of children with autism deserve answers.

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