When it comes to autism research, there's always something new to discover. From the best treatments to the latest developments in screening and genetics, this is a fast-moving area of medical science. Theories and therapies change all the time, and it's important for parents, teachers, and caregivers to stay up to date on the latest research trends.
Seven Major Questions
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC), current autism research is divided into seven primary areas, each of which attempts to answer a question about the disorder:
- When should parents and professionals be concerned about a possible autism diagnosis?
- Which biological processes are involved in this disorder?
- What are the autism risk factors, and can ASD be prevented?
- What are the most promising interventions and treatments for ASD?
- Who is providing autism services, and how effective and accessible are these services?
- How is society handling autism throughout the lifespan, especially when it comes to adults with ASD?
- What changes need to be made to existing infrastructure and surveillance to accommodate those with ASD?
Trends in Autism Diagnosis
The IACC reports that about 11 percent of current research is focused on the area of diagnosis. This area includes developing better screening tools for teachers and doctors and identifying significant differences in the development of children with ASD.
One notable development in this area occurred in 2014, when the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article calling for revised screening tools to allow doctors to diagnose autism earlier. The article cited recent research that showed that rewriting existing screening tools allowed pediatricians to accurately diagnose autism at age two.
Trends in Understanding the Biology of Autism
According to the IACC, 38% of research focuses on the biology of autism, making this the most studied area of the disorder. This type of research focuses on co-morbidity with other health conditions, genetic mutations, differences in neurological function, and other factors.
Among the many studies focused on this research area, was one published in the journal Pediatrics in 2014. It examined the relationship of autism to other health conditions. The researchers looked at electronic health records for patients diagnosed with ASD and found that there were four distinct paths for the disorder to take. These included:
- ASD with seizures
- ASD with gastrointestinal problems
- ASD with psychiatric disorders
- ASD without other health conditions
Latest Research Into Autism Risk Factors
The IACC reports that 17% of autism research focuses on the area of risk factors, or circumstances that might predispose a child to develop autism. This encompasses both environmental and genetic elements and includes things like the environment in utero, the tendency for autism to run in families, and birth events that could result in neurological damage.
One study that made headlines in 2013 was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry. It found that 12% of mothers with children on the autism spectrum had antibodies that may have attacked the fetal brain during development and that when these antibodies were given to pregnant rhesus monkeys, the offspring developed behaviors consistent with autism.
Recent Development in ASD Treatments and Interventions
Studies focused on new treatments and interventions for autism spectrum disorders make up about 19% of total ASD research, according to the IACC. This type of research covers everything from novel drug treatments to behavioral therapies.
An important study from 2013 was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. It found that a particular type of behavioral play therapy called JASPER (Joint Attention Symbolic Play Engagement and Regulation) helped minimally verbal children with ASD make excellent progress. The researchers concluded that interventions focused on joint attention and play skills could be very effective.
Current Research Into Autism Services
The IACC reports that 10% of current autism research is focused on the area of providing services. This type of research examines the effectiveness and accessibility of early intervention services, as well as special education and social services.
In 2014, the journal Autism published an important study in this area. The study focused on the different types of preschool interventions for children with ASD, examining whether autism-only classrooms, mixed disability classrooms, or integrated mainstream classrooms produced the best results. The study found that for many kids with ASD, placement in an integrated mainstream preschool provided the social skills exposure they needed to progress at the highest level.
Recent Research Into Autism Throughout the Lifespan
According to the IACC, about four percent of autism research focuses on lifespan issues, such as the transition from school services to adulthood and the best ways to support adults with autism in college or a career.
One major British study published in the journal Autism in 2014 focused on whether it was more cost effective to provide standard day care services for adults with moderate to severe autism or to offer these adults supported employment. It found that despite the cost of running the program, supported employment was more cost effective.
Current Studies Regarding Autism Infrastructure and Surveillance
The IACC reports that the smallest portion of research, about three percent, focuses on the area of surveillance and infrastructure. This includes things like awareness of risk factors and diagnosis in certain social and cultural groups, as well as the social and economic support structure in place for people on the autism spectrum.
One notable study in this area was published by the University of Minnesota in 2013. It focused on the population of Somali immigrant children diagnosed with ASD, which is comparatively very high. It found that although Somali children are more likely to have severe forms of ASD, they are less likely to be diagnosed at an early age.
From the purported connection between autism and vaccines to the genetic basis for the disorder, researchers are constantly studying aspects of autism. Society's understanding of this mysterious disorder is changing all the time, and keeping up with current research trends is a good way to make sure you're doing everything you can to help.