Autism Facts vs Fiction: What Every Parent Needs to Know

little boy walkingAutism. That six-letter word is one of the most feared among new parents. We hear so much about it -- everything from probable causes to possible cures. Sometimes it's hard to figure out what to believe. And with 1 in 88 children being diagnosed, it's impossible to ignore. So The Stir is here to help clear up any confusion and questions you may have. We have reached out to autism experts across the country to figure out the facts from fiction. It's a must-read for every parent.


The Claim: Vaccines Cause Autism

There has been a lot of debate in recent years over whether vaccinations can lead to autism. The fear is so widespread, many new parents are reluctant to have their kids inoculated against dangerous diseases. 

FALSE. Any so-called research backing up that assertion is absolutely untrue, says Dr. Patricia McGuire, a behavioral and developmental pediatrician with over 30 years of experience working with autism patients.

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"The original report which started it all has been found to be false on many levels resulting in the removal of the article from the Lancet, and the lead investigator losing his medical license," she adds. "Countries around the world have been doing both prospective and retrospective research which have found no link.  Even changing how the vaccines are made has made no difference."

autism facts fictionThe Claim: You Can Give Your Child a Blood Test to Detect Autism

Much like the testing for other diseases, many parents believe that autism can also be detected in the blood.

FALSE. However, one could be available in the near future. A blood test for autism is still in development. Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital are hard at work researching it at this very moment. Until then, doctors must rely on developmental tests for speech and language, and observations of social skills and behavior.

The Claim: The Cause of Autism is Unknown

For decades, experts have said that the root cause of autism is unknown, but studies suggest that there may be a genetic link, pollution, and perhaps even a mother's bout with depression can play a part. So many parents are left wondering if there really isn't a known cause.

TRUE. "Autism spectrum disorders do not have a cause," says Dr. McGuire. "Rather there are a multitude of factors that can funnel down to the final phenotype or presentation which we call autism. There are now several genes as well as several chromosomal mutations which have been associated with autism. Down’s Syndrome, tuberous sclerosis and Fragile X have higher rates of autism.  So does having agenesis of the corpus callosum, which is missing the bridge between the two sides of the brain. In addition, extreme prematurity has been associated with an increased risk of autism, felt to be due to the disruption of normal development through exposure to the outside world too soon."

The Claim: More Boys Than Girls Have Autism

According to the CDC, 1 in 54 boys will be diagnosed compared to 1 in 252 girls. How is this possible?

TRUE. "That's understood to be true, but we do not know why," says Dr. Kimberly Williams, a Pediatric Neuropsychologist and Clinical Psychologist. "We know that four times as many boys have Autism than girls. Recently a newly discovered autism-risk gene, identified as CACNA1G which sits on chromosome 17, which is found more frequently in boys than in girls. Why that's so is still not clear but the scientists suggest it plays a role in boys' increased risk of the developmental disorder.

A Pregnant Woman Can Prevent Her Baby From Becoming Autistic

With the increasing rate of autism diagnosis, many expectant women are wondering what they can do to keep their unborn child from developing it.

TRUE: "We are seeing the benefit of folic acid supplements in decreasing the risk of autism with a suggested decrease of risk by 40%," explains Dr. McGuire. "This is not hard and fast since it needs to be further researched. It also applied only to the most severe form of autism, not PDD, NOS or Asperger’s Syndrome. So far, no other changes in the mother’s prenatal diet have been found to increase or decrease the risk of autism.  There also hasn’t been an associated link with cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs.  There may be some increased risk with gestational diabetes, which also shows some increased risk of language, motor, and learning problems in the offspring."

The Claim: The Age of the Parents Influences Autism

New studies suggest that older mom and dads run a greater risk of having a kid with autism, leaving an entire subset of parents fearing the worst.

TRUE. "They have actually found increased risk for advanced paternal and maternal age," says Dr. McGuire.  "The recent report on the grandfather’s age did also bring up the question about males in the spectrum having a harder time finding a mate due to social skill problems, and thus fathering children later in life. The thought is that with increasing age, there is a risk of mutations occurring in the sperm or egg, some of which may lead to autism."

But, adds Patricia Wright, National Director of Autism Services for Easter Seals, "It is important to note that this research indicates increased risk for autism, not a cause of autism."

The Claim: There Is Only 1 Type of Autism

Some parents have wondered if there is really such a thing as an autism spectrum.

FALSE. "This is a complex question," says Dr. Williams. "As it stands today, Autistic Disorder has a subset of criteria that a child must present in order to be considered Autistic. But there is more. Collateral information must be considered such as family genetics, child developmental history , how the child performs in many cognitive areas.  Autistic Disorder currently falls under the rubric of Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which includes Autism and four other development disorders. There is a Vast amount of difference in children with these pervasive developmental disorders ranging from those with severe cognitive deficits and no language, to those who are amazing prodigies, intellectually gifted, and have good communication skills. Most consistent across all types of pervasive developmental delays is that children have difficulty with aspects of social skills development and higher level pragmatic communication skills."

The Claim: There Is a Cure for Autism

Some doctors and parents say a gluten-free diet is the key to curing autism. Could diet really be the answer?

FALSE: "Diets don’t cure autism," asserts Dr. McGuire.   "There is a subset that has significant GI problems whose behavioral symptoms may lessen if their digestive issues can be gotten under control, but they still have the core problems. Autism is a neuro-developmental disorder having many etiologies as to its development. Because of this, a cure is unlikely.  Some people have talked about prenatal gene surgery in the future, but with the variety of genes involved and the role of gene/environment interaction, this makes it hard." 


What other questions about autism do you have?

Image via Olesia Bilkei/shutterstock; Lisa Williams/Flickr

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