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

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Nick Clegg (R) Liberal Democrat Leader and former leader Charles Kennedy MP, joined the general election campaign trail on April 8, 2010  

Charles Kennedy: The only mainstream political leader who spoke sense

Tim Farron
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific