Ask A Doc - Autism Q&A

April 06, 2017

Nagpaul_arunDear Doc:

One of my cousin's was recently diagnosed with being on the autism spectrum.  What does this mean?  Will he be disabled for life?

Dear Reader:

April is Autism Awareness Month and many organizations and charities are sponsoring programs to educate the public about the often confusing term autism. Actually, the medical term is autism spectrum disorder or ASD. 

ASD is a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others.  There may be delayed learning of language, difficulty holding conversations with others, difficulty making eye contact,  narrow focused interests, poor motor skills and sensitivity to environmental stimuli.

ASD is considered a "spectrum" disorder because it affects individuals differently and to varying degrees, resulting in a "spectrum" of symptoms and potential disabilities.

On a nationwide level, the puzzle piece symbol reflects the mystery and complexity of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Since every puzzle piece is different in some way, a puzzle pieces also accurately represent the diversity of the individuals affected by ASD. 

More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder. In 2016, the prevalence of autism had risen to 1 in every 68 births in the United States – nearly twice as great as the 2004 rate of 1 in 125 – and almost 1 in every 54 boys. 

Some of the increase in ASD diagnosis is that the medical community and parents are more aware, therefore, ASD is diagnosed more often.  However, that alone does not explain the sharp rise in ASD.  Many are trying to find the cause of ASD in order to curtail the rising rate.

There is no single cause of ASD, but clearly a genetic factor is involved. In a family with one ASD child, the risk of a second ASD child is five percent (1 in 20), much higher than would be expected in the normal population.

A mother's exposure to viruses, toxins and pollutants has been theorized to increase the risk of ASD.  Exposure as a young child to pesticides, heavy metals, and other environmental agents has also been suggested as factors in ASD.

One thing that has been established is that there is no credible scientific proof that vaccines contribute to ASD.  Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who published a study that reportedly linked immunizations to ASD lied. He lied about his data and about his financial stake in discrediting vaccines. His study has since been disproved and he has lost his medical license. 

It is also important to note that children do not "outgrow" ASD.  Studies and research have shown that early diagnosis and early treatment interventions can lead to improvement in communication skills, improved social skills and better independence in adulthood.

ASD awareness has made great strides in the last few years.  The actor, Ben Affleck, recently portrayed a character in the movie "The Accountant" who had ASD. Through treatment and support as a child, his character eventually worked and lived independently as an adult.

Also, in an attempt to decrease the stigma of being diagnosed with ASD, and create awareness and understanding of ASD, Sesame Street, has introduced a new Muppet character named Julia, who has ASD.

The earlier your cousin receives treatment and support for his ASD, the less disabled and more independent he may be.  I hope this April answer helped bring awareness and information regarding to ASD.

Stay healthy and remember the quote by Stephen Shore, "If you've met one individual with autism, you've met one individual with autism."

Dr. Nagpaul is board certified in Internal Medicine. He is a senior hospitalist/physician advisor at Newark-Wayne Community Hospital and the Medical Director for Long Term Care for Newark’s DeMay Living Center, Clifton Springs Nursing Home and for Wayne County Public Health.  This column is meant to be educational and is not intended to be used to make individual treatment decisions. Prior to starting or stopping any treatment, please confer with your own health care provider. To send questions to our medical providers, please email Dr. Nagpaul at Arun.Nagpaul@rochesterregional.org and put “Ask a Doc” in the subject line.