Autism is a complex disorder of the central nervous system and the condition has a wide range of severity along its spectrum. While the causes of autism are unknown, the nature of the brain disorder appears to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Nervous System disabilities
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development lists autism as a nervous system disability along with Down syndrome and fragile X syndrome. While each is a distinct diagnosis, they disabilities affecting the nervous system have similarities.
- Problems with brain functioning
- Learning difficulties
- Behavioral issues
- Speech and language delays
- Movement disorders
- Sensory processing problems
Autism Is a Complex Disorder of the Central Nervous System
The nervous system is a complicated network and in cases of autism, the system becomes disrupted. The disruption leads to changes in the way the brain is "wired" to process information. The differences can lead to social dysfunction, self stimulatory behaviors and language problems.
Researchers are trying to find the possible causes of autism and it appears that some individuals are genetically susceptible to have the neuro-developmental disorder. Among the issues researchers are exploring are inflammation in the brain.
Prenatal Inflammation in the Brain
A Johns Hopkins University study found:
- Microglia and astroglia (brain cells associated with the central nervous system) become inflamed in individuals with autism higher than in typical individuals.
- Cerebrospinal fluid demonstrated an increase in cytokine response in autistic individuals.
These findings point to inflammation as a factor in the development of autistic disorders. The National Children's Study is investigating the possibility of inflammation during prenatal development as a risk factor for disorders like cerebral palsy and autism.
A study by the University of North Carolina School of Medicine's Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, Developing Neurotransmitter Systems as Targets for Pesticide and Drug Exposure explains the importance of neurotransmitters in neural development in vertebrates. The university is exploring the ramifications of prenatal exposure to pesticides to neurons and receptors in the brain.
The university wants to determine whether environmental conditions such as exposure to toxins can lead to problems in development of neurotransmitter systems, especially in genetically susceptible individuals. Autism has been connected with poor development of the central nervous system and finding the possible triggers can help prevent the disorders in the future.
Genes and Neurology
National Institute of Mental Health is supporting the Autism Genome Project, an effort to find genetic and environmental factors that may lead to autistic disorders. Subjects they are exploring include:
- Finding genes that make individuals vulnerable to autism
- Gene interactions that may play a role
- Submicroscopic anomalies
- Glutamate neurotransmitter system in relation to autistic disorders
- Role of neurexins (molecules that create glutamate synapses) The synapses help brain cells communicate with one another.
- Chromosome 11
Autism is a complex disorder of the central nervous system that interferes with the brain's ability to process information. Exploring the neurological, biomedical aspect of pervasive developmental disorders can help gain deeper understanding of the spectrum.
Autism as a Disease
Autism is a complex disorder of the central nervous system but does this make the condition a disease? The argument has ramifications across the board. Some advocates and individuals affected by autism spectrum disorders consider the condition to be a difference rather than a disease. Others see autism as a disorder but some refer to autistic disorders as diseases.
When we consider autism as a difference rather than a disorder, we may be apt to accept the differences but this may also lead to a lack of sympathy among those who are not familiar with the spectrum. Disorders like autism are most commonly referred to as disorders or syndromes and this designation may lead to the conclusion that the behaviors and differences do not have a biomedical source.
Disease is not an appealing word and it can be insulting to some individuals and families affected by autism. The benefit of using this type of term is that it helps the general public understand that the conditions are neurological in nature rather than a matter of poor behavioral management.