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Breaking News: The Latest Autism Research

With last week’s International Meeting for Autism Research in Philadelphia came new reports on autism research ranging from good to guilt-inducing: an inkling of hope from a clinical drug trial, research defying the persistent myth that divorce is one likely encore to an autism diagnosis, a rigorous study debunking claims that changes in diet can result in changes in a child’s behavior and two more studies linking common infertility treatments to a slight increase in autism risk. The real good news is that the research is being done, and the real bad news is that with all the headlines, we still don’t know much. (Although we do know that  Dr. Andrew Wakefield, whose “research” supposedly linked the MMR vaccine to autism, lost his license to practice in Great Britain today, which won’t affect his Texas clinic.) None of the reported studies did much more than give researchers a lead on where to look next.

The best of the good news was also the least tangible:  researchers have had promising results testing a drug that may help resolve communication issues in the nerve cells of the brain that can lead to learning disabilities of a type considered to fall under the autism spectrum. It’s barely on the scale of news–nothing could be more preliminary than a few restored mice–but it’s the first time a drug has shown any signs of an affect in this area.

Brian Freedman, Ph.D., took aim at a persistent belief that parents of children with autism are more likely to divorce. “You can imagine the impact of getting a diagnosis of autism, and immediately following that getting a diagnosis of divorce,” he says.    What he found offers some support for those parents: a diagnosis of autism alone isn’t enough to increase the risk to a marriage. What does put a marriage at risk is a diagnosis of ADHD, with or without a diagnosis of autism. Freedman, who serves as clinical director at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, says families of kids with autism are, “incredibly resilient.”

Strollerderby blogger Madeline Holler reported last week on research showing that a gluten- and casien-free diet had no effect on the behavior of the 14 autistic children studied. Parents like Jenny McCarthy have lauded the diet–McCarthy says it contributed to her son’s eventual recovery, and many others claim to see benefits–but it’s been difficult to test in clinical trials. This one will be a disappointment to parents hoping to help their kids control their symptoms (and gain some control themselves), but the researchers themselves pointed out that a study of 14 kids is hardly conclusive.

The hardest news to process came from two studies revealing possible links between infertility treatments and autism. Previous studies have found a possible correlation between autism and actual infertility (regardless of whether it’s resolved by treatment, or just eventually results in an unassisted birth), but these were the first studies to find a possible link between infertility treatments and autism. One study, conducted at Harvard, found that autism was nearly twice as likely in children of women treated with fertility drug Clomid (and the longer the women took the drug, the stronger the correlation). Another study done in Israel found a higher rate of autism among children born through IVF than in the general population. Both studies were, again, preliminary–the epidemiologist who led the Harvard study cautions women against drawing any conclusions from the study, saying that even if a link is later proven, the additional risk remains small (4% in treated women, 2% in untreated women, in a group with an average age of 35, and even lower in younger women).

But it’s what to do with all this new information, preliminary as it may be, that’s difficult. Parents who’ve already undergone infertility treatment can worry more, test more, watch more. Parents who received treatments and whose children have already been diagnosed gain an additional burden of guilt, however unwarranted. And women or couples considering treatment have to struggle with an additional question in a field that’s already unclear. The research should be done, the results reported, and the implications dealt with by parents and professionals as best they can, until more–and more, and more–is known.

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