April is Autism Awareness Month and, in fact, president Obama declared April 2nd World Autism Awareness Day, recognizing that autism affects nearly one percent of children in the U.S. (1 in 70 boys) and proclaiming it a public health emergency.
This month is dedicated to learning more about children and adults with autism and throwing more weight behind initiatives like early intervention and research into its root causes.
So what have we learned recently about the biological steps that lead to autism? A lot, actually. Here is a look at 5 highlights from the last year in autism research:
1. The unfolding story of autism genes: The largest autism genetic initiative to date, the Autism Genome Project, released findings from their work. The project is the collaboration of 60 institutions and 120 collaborating scientists and has some of the most significant findings in autism’s genetic roots. For example, their findings have shown that people with autism are 20 percent more likely to have genetic hiccups called “copy number variants” in their DNA sequence.
2. The vaccine-autism story laid to rest (at least for now): Earlier this year, the British Medical Journal took the stance that Andrew Wakefield, who published the original research paper linking autism and vaccines, may have been involved in deliberate fraud.
3. Evidence points to why autism is seen more often in boys. For every one girl diagnosed with autism, there are four boys with the disorder. In February, scientists reported that they had zeroed in on a possible mechanism behind this — the key has to do with how a certain gene is turned on or off when exposed to male and female sex hormones.
4. An explanation for why autism and ADHD can overlap. Recently, I wrote in my column Science of Kids column about the genetic crossovers between autism and ADHD and why clinical symptoms often co-exist.
5. Closely-spaced siblings are at higher risk for autism. A surprising study in January of over half a million children showed that a second child born under two years from a younger sibling has a significantly increased risk for autism. The study was conducted by Columbia University researchers and published in the journal Pediatrics.
The story of autism spectrum disorders continues to unfold with the efforts of researchers, clinicians, educators, and parents. As we learn, the picture becomes ever more complex and nuanced — and we see just how unique each child with the diagnosis really is.