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Environmental Factors in Autism Initiative

The objective of the Environmental Factors in Autism Initiative is to identify and understand how environmental factors are influencing the incidence of autism spectrum disorders. Studies have determined that there are several factors that influence the root causes of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).1 Traditionally, science has investigated genetic factors as the cause of ASD, but “environmental exposures are now believed to trigger autism more commonly than genetic factors.”2 Using data collected in 2008, the CDC concludes that 1 of 88 children and 1 out of 54 boys3 in the United States has been identified with an ASD. In response to the CDC report, Autism Speaks’ co-founder Bob Wright exclaimed “we have an epidemic on our hands.”4 Environmental factors such as pollutants, pesticides, vaccinations, viruses, water quality, exposures in the womb, other chemicals, and numerous other environmental triggers are being investigated as potential causes for the rise of incidence in ASD.

The Environmental Factors in Autism Initiative has been spearheaded by organizations like Autism Speaks and the Autism Society. In 2008, Autism Speaks announced more than $3.6 million in grants over the next three years devoted strictly to studying the effects of environmental factors on the cause and incidence of autism spectrum.5 Another project of Autism Speaks is known as the Environmental Epidemiology of Autism Research Network, which launched in May of 2010. The collaboration “brought together 13 studies and over 30 investigators using epidemiological approaches to identify environmental risk factors and gene-environment interactions as causes of autism….”6 In addition to a worldwide collaboration, the project aims to gather data of autism spectrum disorder as it pertains to developing countries, the rate of incidence, and trends in prevalence over time. The project will examine former methods of data collection from other health conditions that affect the global population and use that knowledge to “facilitate autism surveillance and research.”7 If research is able to determine a higher rate of incidence of ASD in specific populations or cultures across the globe, then researchers may be able to use that data to determine which specific environmental exposures are responsible for the higher rate of ASD incidence in those particular regions.8

In 2006, the Autism Society formed the Environmental Health Advisory Board (EHAB), which aims to “explore the connection between the environment and autism.”9 The board is composed of professionals in many scientific and medical fields including neurology, pharmaceuticals, toxicology, and psychiatry. The following are some of the principal goals of the Autism Society’s Environmental Health Initiative:

  • Expand awareness about the broad range of environmental contributors to ASD, especially as they relate to genetic susceptibilities
  • Collaborate with other groups to address the links between environmental exposures and health problems involving neurological, immunological, and gastrointestinal disorders
  • Encourage responsible media coverage regarding environmental toxicants as they relate to pediatric health
  • Promote medical and educational policy initiatives for equitably delivering effective, affordable, and reimbursable autism care
  • Inform policymakers about legislation that will better protect children and those who have ASD from harmful toxicants
  • Encourage the government and scientific communities to increase funding for research pertinent to the prediction, prevention, and reversal of ASD10

SOURCE: Autism Society - Mission of the Environmental Health Initiative

The heightened incidence of autism spectrum disorders has prompted an international investigation into the influence of environmental factors. The rise in prevalence of ASD “cannot be explained by changes in diagnostic criteria or improvements in case ascertainment.”11 Therefore, researchers must continue to collaborate and focus on environmental exposures as the likely cause of the increase in diagnostic rates of autism spectrum disorders.