By | September 22, 2016

Researchers have sought to determine an exact cause of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) for decades, and while the internet is littered with reports of chemical-caused autism, these claims have been often left unfounded. However, researchers are starting to uncover how genetics relate to ASDs, and in some cases, this information can hold the key to unlocking better treatment methods in the future.

Since individuals with autism rely on a continuous stream of information, especially with regard to early intervention in helping young children with ASDs, you need to understand a few things about the research. This includes what the evidence suggests, how it is relevant to current treatment plans and how it can be leveraged in the future.


Problems with Figuring out the Genetic Link in the Past

Part of the problem with previous studies on the link between genes and autism have revolved around the inability to determine which genotypes become expressed in development. An expressed gene is commonly known as a phenotype, but previous studies found some genes that appeared expressed did not necessarily result in the development of an ASD.

As a result, researchers were unable to clearly define which genes were more likely to cause autism. However, machine-learning programs at Princeton University, reports Medical Daily, are being used to identify what specific genes appear most likely to be expressed later in life. Consequently, researchers created a list of prioritized genes that would help identify people at greatest risk for developing an ASD, which means early intervention could begin earlier with something as simple as a genetic blood test.

Another confounding factor in previous research was the amount of time required to study those with autism and their genetic code. Researchers would spend countless hours analyzing data from hundreds of children, caregivers and therapists, and conclusions were based largely on assumption.

The Princeton University study used to machine-learn to complete the analysis quicker, which produce consistent results with minimal variations, explains Autism Speaks. Researchers in similar studies to the Princeton University study have identified other trends in individuals with ASDs.

For example, children living with an ASD were more likely to suffer from seizures, insomnia and gastrointestinal disorders than their immediate family members. Therefore, researchers can use this information to isolate potential indicators of autism before the affected genes are “switched on.” In addition, other strong evidence suggests the likelihood of a root genetic cause of autism may be as high as 56 percent, explains the Genetic Literacy Project.


How Can Genetics Influence Current Treatment of Autism?

Current treatment programs for autism and ASDs are built on environmental influences. For example, applied behavior analysis (ABA) focuses on teaching appropriate behaviors and skills through repetition and positive reinforcement. Imagine how knowing a child’s increased risk for autism could be used to begin early intervention before an actual diagnosis has been made. The results could easily shatter current rates of successful treatment outcomes.

Genes are also influenced by their surroundings. Think of how a cell responds when exposed to high levels of ultraviolet radiation. The cells may die prematurely, or they may become cancerous. This same process can occur in any cell in the body. In developing children, early experiences can directly “affect how and if genes are expressed,” asserts the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. In fact, the genes that control brain development and cognitive functioning are particularly susceptible to environmental influences.


What Does the Princeton University Study Mean for the Future of Autism Research and Treatment?

The costs associated with researching the genetics of autism have been extensive in the past, and many research facilities were incapable of attaining funds to further genetic research. The Princeton University study narrows the focus of research. In other words, scientists may be able to increase the number of studies available, which could have significant impacts on people with autism.

Children with a direct family history of any intellectual or developmental disabilities may be screened earlier for autism. More importantly, parents may have the option of being screened for genetic traits that are likely to be carried on by their children. Now, this conversation takes an interesting turn. Does future research into the genetics and autism become part of the discussion on designer babies?


As explained previously, genetics provide the rubric for the development of the mind and body. Yet, environment influences can be adjusted to reduce the likelihood of developing autism.

For example, a child with a genetic predisposition to an ASD should be carefully monitored to prevent the activation of autism-related genes. While technology cannot yet identify an autism-specific gene, the presence of autism-related genes may be used to help parents, caregivers, case managers and clinical directors ensure environments are healthy for at-risk children. In other words, parents and caregivers can create a holistic environment that does not “activate” the respective genes.


Final Thoughts

Social media crazes over the causes of autism will continue to occur. Recently, the cries of mothers that vaccinations caused autism in their children ignited a firestorm in both politics and social contexts. But, researchers are continuing to learn more about how genes may affect the development of autism than anyone has realized. By understanding the information, including the studies and the implications of genetic research, you can help parents, caregivers and clinical providers be better prepared for future treatment possibilities.


Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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