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Autism and autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. They include autistic disorder (sometimes referred to as “classic autism”), Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome. ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. Some persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music, math and art.

Autism has its roots in early brain development. However, the most obvious signs of autism and symptoms of autism tend to emerge between 12 and 18 months of age. Some infants and toddlers begin develop normally until the second year of life, when they lose skills and develop autism – a pattern called “regression.”

Not long ago, the answer to this question would have been “we have no idea.” Research is now delivering the answers. First and foremost, we now know that there is no one cause of autism just as there is no one type of autism. Over the last five years, scientists have identified a number of rare gene changes, or mutations, associated with autism. Research has identified more than a hundred autism risk genes. In around 15 percent of cases, a specific genetic cause of a person’s autism can be identified. However, most cases involve a complex and variable combination of genetic risk and environmental factors that influence early brain development.

In other words, in the presence of a genetic predisposition to autism, a number of nongenetic, or environmental, influence further increase a child’s risk. The clearest evidence of these environmental risk factors involves events before and during birth. They include advanced parental age at time of conception (both mom and dad), maternal illness during pregnancy, extreme prematurity and very low birth weight and certain difficulties during birth, particularly those involving periods of oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain. Mothers exposed to high levels of pesticides and air pollution may also be at higher risk of having a child with ASD. It is important to keep in mind that these factors, by themselves, do not cause autism. Rather, in combination with genetic risk factors, they appear to modestly increase risk.

A small but growing body of research suggests that autism risk is less among children whose mothers took prenatal vitamins (containing folic acid) in the months before and after conception.

Each individual with autism is unique. Many of those on the autism spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music and academic skills. About 40 percent have intellectual disability (IQ less than 70), and many have normal to above average intelligence. Indeed, many persons on the spectrum take deserved pride in their distinctive abilities and “atypical” ways of viewing the world. Others with autism have significant disability and are unable to live independently. About 25 percent of individuals with ASD are nonverbal but can learn to communicate using other means. Ire Pearl Centre of Hope ’ mission is to improve the lives of all those on the autism spectrum. For some, this means the development and delivery of more effective treatments that can address significant challenges in communication and physical health. For others, it means increasing acceptance, respect and support.

Research suggests that the development of autism is rooted in very early brain development. However, in most cases, no one cause can be identified. Research has identified several genes that can cause autism in and of themselves. These account for about 15 percent of cases of autism spectrum disorders. Research has identified more than 100 genes or gene changes (mutations) that increase the risk that a child will develop autism. In most cases, genetics alone can’t distinguish why one person has autism and another does not. Gene-environment interactions appear to be at play. When scientists use the term “environment,” they are referring to a wide range of nongenetic factors. Those most associated with increased autism risk include advanced parental age at time of conception and prematurity with very low birth weight. Other possible environmental risk factors include maternal diabetes or infection during pregnancy and certain birth complications, particularly those that may involve oxygen deprivation to a baby’s brain.

Over the last two decades, extensive research has asked whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism.  The results of this research are clear: Vaccines do not cause autism.  We urge that all children be fully vaccinated.

Though autism cannot be definitively diagnosed until around 18 to 24 months, research shows that children as young as 8 to 12 months may exhibit early signs. Parents should look for symptoms such as no back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by 9 months; no babbling or back-and-forth gestures (e.g. pointing) by 12 months; or any loss of babbling, speech or social skills at any age. For more information visit our blog