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A Parent’s Worry Explored in NBC’s ‘Parenthood’

September 28, 2011 24 comments

Here is the ‘Experts Speak‘ commentary of NBC‘s ‘Parenthood‘ episode ‘Step Right Up.’

The Bravermans are having a baby! How exciting! From the look on Adam’s face in the final episode last spring, it was a real shock to both Adam and Kristina at first. Now they, as well as the whole Braverman family, are delirious with joy that Kristina will be having a baby – and soon! But underneath, there is tension and, like many families in similar situations, real fear as well.

Kristina and Adam know the statistics for having a second child with an autism spectrum disorder. The latest research study (Ozonoff, Young, et al., 2011) released just this August in the journal Pediatrics reveals that the chance of having a second child with an autism spectrum disorder is 19% (previous rates were stated between 3% – 10%). Since four out of five individuals with autism will be boys, is it any wonder that Adam and Kristina are hoping for a girl?

Learning that they are having a baby girl lessens the tension but probably will not totally eliminate it. The research in heritability of autism in families is difficult to ignore, and Kristina and Adam face what other families face when they already have a child with autism spectrum disorder. Some families that have a diagnosed child with ASD will choose not to have a second child at all – in research, that’s called the “stop factor.” To put it plainly, they stop having children.

And that is sad. Because each child – whether they have autism or not, and whether they are the first, second, third or more child with an ASD – should be a joy to behold. For families that have a child with autism, the family gets an extra package – a child that has a very unique way of looking at and reacting to the world. Individuals with ASD offer so much to our world – to parents and professionals alike. Too often, the world only sees the “downside” to autism: the lack of verbal language, the inappropriate behaviors, the social isolation. Professionals (like myself) hold days-long workshops on ASD, outlining the characteristics, teaching strategies and methods to reshape inappropriate behaviors, and how to ameliorate the symptoms of autism. But shouldn’t we be holding days-long workshops on what those with autism bring to our society? The joy of seeing progress, the huge rote memory, the insatiable curiosity, and the pure innocence that catches us unaware and makes us all humble?

Yes, it is a present fear that a family will have a second or third or fourth child with autism (and there are some families in this nation that have more than four children with ASD), and pediatricians and family physicians should be referring the family for genetic testing and counseling, so that the parents can make informed decisions for themselves and for their family. Although there is no definitive genetic marker for autism at this time, current studies are getting closer to capturing its elusive causes. Someday, there will be answers. Families who have a child with ASD (regardless of how many) should be referred for genetic testing, since other, underlying conditions can be identified (which may explain behavior and medical difficulties mimicking autistic behaviors) such as Fragile X, metabolic disorders, Rett’s Disorder, etc. In fact, genetic testing is a procedure that families may want to repeat every 10 years or so, since breakthroughs can happen (and are happening) at any time and in any number of disabilities and conditions.

Should Adam and Kristina be fearful? Not really; the baby is coming regardless of whether she has autism or not. A bit worried? Yes, probably, and totally understandably. But this is a strong family, and the love of their children is deep; they will love this little girl whether she has an autism spectrum disorder or not.

And she couldn’t be born into a better family.

Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.

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The High Risk Baby Siblings Research Consortium—in partnership with Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health Development announced the results of the consortium’s largest ever siblings study. The researchers followed younger brothers and sisters from infancy through the preschool period, when autism diagnosis becomes possible.  The study revealed a markedly higher risk among younger siblings than had been previously reported.

You can find more information about these findings here:

New findings on risk of autism in siblings – What do they mean for parents?

Increased Risk of Autism in Siblings LIVE Chat Transcript 

Increased Risk of Autism in Siblings News Coverage 

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