Jeremy Laurance: The biggest puzzle is the rise in cases in the past 30 years

The authors dismissed suggestions that lifestyle changes were behind the 12-fold increase

Share
Related Topics

Autism is a condition that exerts a grip on the public imagination like no other. It disturbs something that is core to our being human. In the social world in which we live, the capacity to read situations and respond appropriately is crucial to successful human interaction. People with autism lack this capacity and are confined to a lonely and isolated world as a result.

The biggest puzzle about autism is the huge rise in cases, up 12-fold among children in the past 30 years, according to some estimates. A study by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in May 2009, suggested that the number of children affected may be up to 50 per cent higher than previous estimates, with as many as 250,000 undiagnosed.

However, the authors dismissed suggestions that changes in lifestyle or the environment were behind the rise. They put it down to improved awareness and detection, and the inclusion of milder conditions within the diagnosis. Most experts agree it is hard to tell whether there is a genuine rise in autism. Classic autism, the severest kind, is thought to affect 30,000 people in the UK, about five in every 10,000, a figure that has remained largely unchanged in 50 years. However, more than 500,000 are estimated to be suffering from autistic spectrum disorders including Asperger's syndrome, a mild version of autism sometimes called "mind blindness".

First identified in 1943, autism has attracted increased interest in the past decade. Some suggest this is because, compared with other disorders such as Down's, people with autism look "normal" and are easier to identify with. With its defining symptom being "an inability to read social situations", it is not simple to diagnose. The disorder is known to run in families, indicating a strong genetic component, which appears confirmed in today's report in Nature. Many environmental causes have been cited, including diet, pesticides, infections, mercury and lead. But none has been identified as a definite cause. The condition has become controversial over the last 10 years because of a claimed link with the MMR vaccine – introduced in 1988 – which has since been discredited.

A second puzzle is whether autism can be treated. Many parents of autistic children believe so. Some swear that following wheat-free or milk-free diets improves symptoms. Many parents have also tried intensive one-to-one behavioural therapy for their autistic children. But the approach is still controversial.

Initial results from a small trial of a drug in people with fragile X syndrome – a genetic disorder – and autism, suggest it may improve social skills, including communication and sociability. The results for the drug arbaclofen were presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Philadelphia last month by Seaside Therapeutics.

The third puzzle is over a diagnostic test for autism: there isn't one. Scientists from Imperial College, London, announced last week they were working on a urine test, based on an altered "chemical fingerprint" in the urine of children with the condition. Last year, Professor Baron-Cohen announced he had moved a step closer to developing a pre-natal test based on the discovery of high levels of testosterone in the amniotic fluid surrounding the foetus. That raised the possibility that an amniocentesis test, similar to that performed for Down's syndrome, could be offered to mothers in the future. But neither test is imminent.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Isis in Iraq: Even if Iraqi troops take back Saddam’s city of Tikrit they will face bombs and booby traps

Patrick Cockburn
The Royal Mint Engraver Jody Clark with his new coinage portrait, alongside the four previous incarnations  

Queen's new coin portrait: Second-rate sculpture makes her look characterless

Michael Glover
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003