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Proposed Causes of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

What causes Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)? There is no simple answer to that question, and individuals looking for a lone cause of autism aren’t likely to find one. Individuals with autism are characterized as having social and communication impairments, and tend to display restricted or repetitive behaviors.1 At the current prevalence rates, more children will be diagnosed with autism than with juvenile diabetes, AIDS, or cancer combined.2 Studies have indicated that some of the physical and developmental signs of autism are visible as early as 12 months of age,3 but the more apparent signs of autism usually materialize between 2 and 3 years of age.2 Some individuals on the autism spectrum appear to develop typically for years, but then undergo regression, losing communication and social skills they had seemingly previously mastered.4

The complexity of the disorder is apparent in the fact that no two people on the autism spectrum are identical. All individuals with ASD are affected differently by the disorder’s co-occurring conditions. All of these combined factors have led researchers to believe there are multiple influences that cause Autism Spectrum Disorders. Historically, science has conjectured that ASD is a result of genetics, but due in part to a constant rise of incidence of ASD over several decades, researchers now believe a combination of genetics and environmental factors are at the root cause of the disorder.5

Researchers have come a long way in determining the causes of autism since the disorder was initially thought to be “brought on by poor parenting, particularly by ‘frigid’ mothers who reject their children.”6 Researchers estimate “that 10 to 100 genes, in addition to environmental and, possibly, epigenetic effects, may contribute to disease susceptibility.”42 Research into genetics and autism has helped to develop new genetic tests that can indicate if at-risk children carry any number of susceptibility genes, and some genetic and environmental factors can indicate if a child is more at risk to develop ASD. However, there are still many milestones to overcome before researchers are able to develop drugs and treatments that effectively prevent the onset of ASD. Researchers in the scientific and medical communities are equipped with more resources than ever to help explore the genetic and environmental causes of autism, which could one day lead to novel drugs and treatments for autism spectrum disorder.