5 Things You Probably Don't Know About Autism

Alison Jean Thomas
boy alone on playground

Facts about autism you probably don't already know emerge and are investigated all the time. This information is of real benefit to anyone who has an ASD (autism spectrum disorder) diagnosed child or family member, or who teaches kids with ASD. According to Autism Speaks, 1 in 68 children is affected by autism. This being the case, everyone benefits by knowing more about this disorder.

1. Folic Acid Is Important During Pregnancy to Prevent Autism

Women wishing to conceive for the first time, or those who already have a child diagnosed with ASD, will be pleased to hear of one measure that may help to prevent their child from suffering from autism.

A report published by the National Center for Biotechnology concludes periconceptual use of folic acid during pregnancy could reduce the risk of ASD in children born of women with poor folate absorption. The findings, the result of a study by UC Davis MIND Institute, are in line with results from previous studies. According to Rebecca J. Schmidt, the lead author, they indicate that improved neurodevelopmental outcomes are linked to women taking folic acid in the months prior to getting pregnant and during the first trimester of pregnancy.

The women were all part of the Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study between 2003 and 2009.

The team of investigators looked at:

  • Data on 835 women from Northern California whose children were between the ages of two and five years and had been diagnosed with autism
  • Dose, brand, and frequency of folic acid consumed for the three months before pregnancy
  • Dose, brand, and frequency of folic acid taken during pregnancy
  • Additional vitamins, supplements, and breakfast cereal consumed

The results showed they had taken less folic acid than the mothers of typically developing children.

How comforting it is to know that if you are thinking of starting a pregnancy, you will promote your child's developmental health by ensuring your folic acid intake is 0.6 milligrams during the first month of pregnancy. It is important to take any measure that helps prevent ASD.

2. Autism Symptoms Can Improve With Age

As far back as 2007, Science Daily reported symptoms of autism can improve with age. This knowledge gives hope and reassurance to parents and loved ones of children and adults with ASD, and yet it is one of the lesser known facts about autism. The report details a longitudinal study of over 400 adolescents and adults with ASD and their families. It was conducted through in-depth interviews, which took place every 18 months.

  • Half of the study's participants were from Wisconsin and half from Massachusetts.
  • They were recruited from service agencies, schools, and clinics.
  • Interviews assessed changes in symptoms and behaviors.

The conclusions were positive, erasing the fear many parents have that their children's symptoms will worsen. Paul T. Shattuck, an assistant professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis who worked on the study, stated in the Science Daily article the percentage of those who improved was always greater than those who worsened, and any significant symptom change was towards improvement, although there was a middle group who showed no change.

A further report funded by National Institutes of Health reiterates these findings, giving hope to parents whose kids are autistic. It asserts that those diagnosed with ASD at an early age are now functioning equally with their mainstream peers.

The study compared:

  • 34 optimal outcome children
  • 44 children with high-functioning autism
  • 34 typically developing children

The participants aged between 8 and 21 years were matched by:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Nonverbal IQ

The optimal outcome children were not receiving special education geared towards ASD but were in standard education. The study, carried out by the University of Connecticut, used parent questionnaires and cognitive and observational tests.

Results showed the usual difficulties faced by children with ASD, such as language, face recognition, communication, and social interaction, were no longer apparent, and the verbal IQs of children with high functioning autism were slightly lower than those of the optimal outcome group.

Although the percentage of diagnosed ASD children who may lose their diagnosis with age cannot be ascertained through this study, it does indicate that even in a normal classroom environment, their development can improve positively. This is heartening for parents and families whose kids do not receive special education.

Further Investigation

The optimistic conclusions of this study have led to further investigation to look into:

  • Structural and functional brain imaging data
  • Psychiatric outcomes
  • Information on therapies received by the children

Analyses will be studied to find out if the changes in diagnosis were caused by a normalizing of brain function, or if they show the children's brains compensated and overrode the difficulties presented by ASD symptoms.

3. Elopement Behavior of ASD Children Is a Significant Stressor

One of the most worrying behaviors commented on by parents and families of ASD diagnosed children is elopement behaviour, defined as the habit of a dependent person to leave a safe area supervised by a responsible person, thereby possibly placing himself in danger. Previously, parents have been labeled poor and irresponsible when their kids have wandered off. This undermines their confidence. The high numbers of stories told by people who care for ASD children led to a study on the propensity of these kids to elope. Results show it is another symptom of autism.

In answer to the amount of stress suffered by families of elopers, the statistics are startling:

  • 43 percent reported it prevented family members from sleeping.
  • 62 percent claimed it stopped them from enjoying outside activities.
  • 56 percent said it was one of the most traumatic behaviors of their autistic child.
  • 50 percent reported lack of guidance on averting or dealing with elopement behavior.

A recent study, Occurrence and Family Impact of Elopement in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders, was published in Pediatrics with the objective of evaluating the problem.

Taking part in the study were 1,218 children with ASD and 1,076 of their siblings, who do not suffer from the disorder. It was carried out through online questionnaires.

Results showed:

  • 49 percent reported their child with ASD had tried to elope at least once after four years of age.
  • 26 percent were missing long enough for the family to be alarmed.
  • 24 percent of the missing children were in danger of drowning.
  • 65 percent of the missing children were in danger from traffic.
  • Elopement risk was linked to the severity of their disorder.
  • Much lower rates of elopement occurred in the siblings without ASD diagnosis (between 1 percent and 11 percent between the ages 4 to 11 years).

The siblings' low elopement rate was important in validating families who otherwise blame themselves when a child absconds. The report concluded interventions to support families with ASD children must be developed and put into place. This should include training the community of carers and educators responsible for the child. Therefore, the outcome of the report offers positive help for parents living under constant pressure that their child may elope and place himself in danger.

4. Early Intervention Improves Brain Responses

You probably already know cognitive and language skills in ASD-diagnosed children can improve through behavioral therapies. However, you may not have heard these therapies can change the brain's biological factors that cause autism.

Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports a clinical trial showed improvements in IQ and adaptive behavior after autistic kids had used the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) developmental intervention.

The trial involved 48 children from 18 to 30 months of age.

  • The children were divided into two groups.
  • One group received ESDM therapy.
  • The other group received conventional community autism services.
  • Both groups underwent approximately twenty hours of therapy weekly for two years.
  • For the final phase of the trial, a group of typical children was used for comparison purposes.

Results showed the ESDM group improved more than the community intervention group. At the completion of the trial, non-invasive electroencephalography (EEG) revealed brain activity patterns' response to social information was greater in the ESDM group, resembling that of typical non-autistic children. The ESDM group responded better when viewing women's faces. Brain activity patterns of those in the community intervention group was better when looking at objects, a finding usual for autistic kids.

Conclusions drawn are that brain activity can be adjusted through early behavioral intervention. It is recommended that kids are screened for autism twice in their first two years. If they receive an ASD diagnosis, therapy should begin immediately.

For parents of ASD diagnosed kids, the trial's results clearly indicate which direction they should move with therapy. They show that ESDM, which is geared towards people and social cues, provides a model of a therapy that improves brain function and behavior and should be imitated as new therapies are designed.

5. Social Skills Improve When Peers Are Trained in How to Interact

Making the connection: randomized controlled trial of social skills at school for children with autism spectrum disorders, is a study that shows that kids who have ASD improve more when classmates are taught the best ways to interrelate with them. This information is comforting to any parent who worries about his autistic child becoming distressed in the classroom and lacking friends on the playground.

For the study, 60 ASD-diagnosed kids from first to fifth grade were enrolled in mainstream classes. They attended for at least 80 percent of the school day. Autism Speaks describes the study:

  • One group was trained to practice social skills and playground activities one-to-one by an adult.
  • A second group was placed in classrooms where three classmates had learned to interact with kids with social difficulties. The classmates did not know the identity of the autistic children.
  • A third group received both types of training.
  • The final group had no special training but later took part in one of the interventions.

The study involved 12 sessions over six weeks while observers, who did not know which group the children belonged to, watched them on the playground.

After three months, the investigators returned to interview the kids and teachers. The greatest improvement had been in the children from the second group. They had a greater social network, more friendships, and better classroom social skills. Furthermore, the improvement continued after the study.

According to Autism Speaks, educational psychologist Connie Kasari, Ph.D. who led the study, was surprised by its findings. She had expected the results to show the model in which an adult worked one-to-one with children would improve the most. However, it was the group in which peers learned how to interact with ASD kids that showed increased social skills both in the classroom and playground.

This approach is beneficial to typical kids as well as ASD diagnosed children, since the intervention trains them in social behavior skills, cooperation, and tolerance.

Facts Promote Hope

Awareness of developments in autism research promotes optimism for those who have to cope with the stress of living with an ASD family member. Trials are carried out to discover causes, ways to diagnose, and treatments. It is important to keep up to date with advances that may help you, or someone near you whose life is touched by autism.

5 Things You Probably Don't Know About Autism