On April 2, many initiatives were launched to promote the World Autism Awareness Day and shine a light on this disorder – in particular, national landmarks were lighted in blue all around the world. This event has been an occasion to review what is currently known about autism, as many misconceptions remain associated to it.
Over time, the definition of autism has been widened. Today, according to the American National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, autism – or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – is considered a “range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior”. It usually appears during childhood, and affects 1 in 132 people worldwide.
Even though research has recently allowed many advances to better understand the mechanisms associated with ASD, a lot of interrogations remain as to why these disorders develop in some individuals and not in others. Just as autism covers a wide range of disorders, there is also a spectrum of causes responsible, such as advanced age of the father at the time of conception, or exposure to certain agents when the fetal brain is developping. In addition, genetics plays a major role in this condition: for example, being a boy (autism is four times as frequent in men as in women) and having ASD running in the family are recognized risk factors. But even though it has been proven that genes play a role in this disorder, they do not account for all the risk, says Wendy Chung, geneticist at the Simons Foundation.
Given the complexity of the situation, no medicated treatment or cure currently exist to treat autism. However, certain drugs can help treating pathologies associated to developmental disabilities such as epilepsy. Besides, early diagnosis allows early and adapted measures for children living with ASD, to help them interacting with other and gaining autonomy.
For this reason, raising awareness on this disorder remains crucial to foster research, and fill the gaps that currently exist in understanding all the dimensions and causes of autism.