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Year in Review: Major Autism Research of 2013

Research and Autism News

Year in Review: Major Autism Research of 2013

Important research studies conducted in 2013 unveiled a number of revelations about the disorder. These discoveries demonstrate that individuals can indeed recover from autism, the environment can interact with an individual’s genes to cause autism, and there are potential clues for the disorder visible in infants as young as 2 to 6 months of age. The list below will discuss some of the major research findings of the 2013 calendar year:
  • Autism May have many 'Lost Girls'- This study suggests that autism may be underdiagnosed in girls because they are not as hyperactive and typically display less problem behaviors than boys. There are no known biological differences between boys and girls with autism, and the lack of identification of these girls causes researchers to wonder if they are receiving the necessary supports in school. The difference in how girls display autistic traits may account for why boys outnumber girls on the spectrum at a rate greater than 4 to 1.
  • Whole-Genome Sequencing Unearths New Autism Mutations- The first sizable study to use whole-genome sequencing to investigate autism, known as the Autism Genome 10K, released its first results in 2013. The researchers collected complete genome data on 32 children with autism and their families. The researchers detected harmful de novo mutations in 15 of the children with autism. They determined that these mutations may contribute to autism symptoms in six of the children, or 19 percent, which is twice the proportion that other methods have turned up. In the process of discovering new genes linked to ASD, the investigators uncovered important medical information for several families. For example, two of the newly identified autism genes were associated with difficult to diagnose syndromes that also affect multiple organ systems.
  • Air Pollution and Genetics Combine to Increase Risk for Autism- According to newly published research, exposure to air pollution appears to increase the risk for autism among people who carry a genetic disposition for the neurodevelopmental disorder. The MET gene variant, which has been associated with autism in multiple studies, controls expression of MET protein in both the brain and the immune system and predicts altered brain structure and function. The study suggests that air pollution exposure and the genetic variant interact to augment the risk of ASD. Although gene-environment interactions are thought to be common in the development of the disorder, this study is the first demonstration of a specific interaction between a well-established genetic risk factor and an environmental risk factor that independently contribute to autism rick, according the study’s senior author Daniel B. Campbell, Ph.D.
  • Recovery is Possible- For Some- This study, led by Deborah Fein, Ph.D., found that children who had been accurately diagnosed with autism early in life lost their autism symptoms as they grew older. This report is the first to acknowledge that recovery from autism is possible, but researchers do not understand why and how some individuals recover and why some do not.
  • LEAP/TEACCH vs. Non-Specific Pre-School Model- This study found that preschoolers with ASD improve developmentally when high-quality early intervention is delivered – regardless of the treatment model used. This is the first study to compare long-standing comprehensive treatment models for young children with ASD. The study found that children maintain gains over the school year regardless of the classroom’s use of LEAP, TEACCH or no specific comprehensive model.
  • 'Love Hormone' Shows Promise for Kids with Autism- New evidence suggests that a nasal spray of a naturally occurring hormone, call oxytocin, may help improve socialization among children with autism. The findings come from a study in which 17 children ages 8 to 16 with the developmental disorder who were randomly given a nasal spray containing the hormone or a placebo. The kids were then asked to complete a social task – identifying a person’s mental state by looking at picture of their eyes—and a non-social task—categorizing pictures of cars. Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to assess the children’s brain responses during the activities. This is the first study to assess the impact of oxytocin on the brain function in children with autism. The researchers found that brain centers associated with reward and motion recognition responded more during social tasks when children received oxytocin instead of the placebo. However, Dr. Paul Wang, senior vice president for medical research at Autism Speaks, believes that much more evidence must be gathered before oxytocin—or any drug—can be safely delivered to individuals with autism. Fortunately, longer studies are soon to commence that will test the efficacy of the drug on a larger sample size and test for lingering effects of the hormone after long-term use.
  • Are Babies’ Eyes the Window to Autism Diagnosis?- An interesting and potentially revolutionary study found that baby boys who will later be diagnosed with autism show a loss of interest in other people’s eyes between 2 and 6 months of age. This is the earliest behavioral marker of autism found to date. The researchers found that the steeper the decline in eye fixation over the first two years of life, the greater the level of social and communication impairment at 2 years old. Clinicians could potentially use this information to diagnose babies at this young age, allowing for them to receive proper interventions, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will gain functioning independence later in life.
  • Training Program Helps Students with Autism Land Jobs- This Virginia Commonwealth study had a control group of high school seniors with autism remain in their regular schools, receiving their typical individualized education programs, while a treatment group spent the year in an intensive, custom-designed study and job-training program at a suburban hospital. Upon graduation, 87% of the treatment group landed hospital jobs such as pharmacy assistance or teacher’s aide that paid above the minimum wage. Only 6% of the control group found jobs. A researcher in the study says a key to their success was discovering each student’s unique set of skills. This study demonstrates that when individuals on the autism spectrum are offered the right supports, they can excel in a career of their choosing.
  • Federal Aid for Autism Redundant- This is not a research study on autism, but the article highlights the wasteful spending by the federal government, who are using autism research dollars to conduct repetitive research. One of the key problems is that departments involved in research aren’t communicating well enough with each other. One example highlights five departments awarded roughly $15.2 million for 20 research projects that all had the same intervention, services, and support in diverse community settings goals. While this represents an egregious waste of federal tax dollars, it is also concerning for the autism community as the federal government is likely only focused on a few subject areas, causing many potential research subjects to be left unexplored.