Autism’s Causes: Pieces of the Puzzle

Autism’s Causes: Pieces of the Puzzle

Autism is one of a host of spectrum disorders classified under the umbrella Autism Spectrum Disorder, and while a lot of research has been undertaken concerning it in the last few decades, its causes are still not fully known or understood. A developmental disorder that can affect those who have it very differently, people with autism tend to engage in repetitive behaviors and display difficulties in communication and social interaction. They can suffer from intellectual and motor disabilities, but sometimes do not, and some individuals with autism are remarkably gifted in areas like music, math or art.


Because it is such a complex disorder, the causes of autism are of particular interest to researchers. Why, for instance, does autism affect boys up to five times more often than girls? Why might a child who appears to be developing along a path that is considered “normal” suddenly develop symptoms of autism? If there is a genetic component, what is it? For parents, researchers and those who work within special education teaching environments, understanding the roots of autism is not just about loosening its widening grip on the population. The more we can understand about the disorder, the better we can understand those with autism. Toward that end, here is a look at some of the purported causes of autism and other spectrum disorders.


Current research suggests that one of the primary causes of autism is genetic, although genetics alone isn’t believed to cause the disorder. Because scientists have found convincing links within families, they believe that some people have a genetic predisposition to autism, a hereditary link that passes from parents to children. That genetic link, however, is not destiny. It appears that some other factors are required in order for that predisposition to become a reality. Researchers are trying to find and decode what genes might be responsible for contributing to someone’s tendency toward autism, but so far, nothing conclusive has been found. However, genomic research into ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression have revealed that these and other mental disorders share inherited genetic variations with Autism Spectrum Disorders. While the findings are still new and not all conclusions have been drawn, the discovery of these shared and apparent genetic links is promising and in time, is likely to yield meaningful and helpful information.

Environmental Triggers

Because genetics alone don’t seem to account for autism’s appearance in a child, some scientists have looked into the role that environmental triggers may play. It seems clear that certain environmental stressors can increase an already genetically vulnerable child’s risk for developing autism. In particular, events that occur before and during birth seem important. Some environmental risk factors or triggers that may be at work, include:

· Parental age at the time of conception

· Maternal sickness during pregnancy

· Any periods of oxygen deprivation while the fetus is developing

· Maternal folic acid deficiencies

None of these environmental triggers alone are sufficient to cause autism. So far, the most scientists will say about them is that they appear to increase the risk.

Abnormal Brain Development

Brain scans of people with autism do show distinct difference in certain parts of the brain, which suggests that somewhere along the line, brain development is affected and disrupted — in particular, the timing of brain development. Because young brains are much more “plastic” than older brains, the earlier a child with autism can receive help in regards to her or his disorder the better. Strong research suggests that early intervention is vital and instrumental in improving an autistic child’s brain functions, communication and social skills.

Childhood Immunizations

While evidence linking childhood vaccinations with autism is spotty and inconclusive as far as medical research shows, many people continue to believe the two are linked. Because the timing of childhood immunizations often occurs at the time when autism symptoms appear, it’s easy to see how the two could be assumed to be related. Whether or not that relationship is coincidental is still somewhat open to debate, but as of right now, no research has found a link between vaccines and autism.


The chances are good that you or someone you know loves someone with autism. As treatment, awareness and intervention continue to improve and advance, so does acceptance of those with the disorder in mainstream schools and society. Whether or not research into the disorder reveals its true mysteries and origins, research will continue, in hopes of continuing to improve the lives of those who live with it.




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