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Improving understanding of Autism

Autism awareness

2 April 2020

Today is World Autism Awareness Day, an observance unanimously agreed upon by The United Nations General Assembly during 2008. This year draws attention to the need for innovative programmes to support young people as they transition to adulthood. In this article we look at developments in research to better understand and treat the condition.

Muriel Cozier

The National Autistic Society explains that ‘Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.’ Autism is a spectrum condition that affects people differently and to varying degrees.

Researchers looking at the Social Interaction Style (SIS) of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have found that a majority of children and adolescents show developmental stability in their SIS. Children with ASD show atypical social behaviour interaction style, ranging from social aloofness to awkward social approaches.

The developmental course of SISs in normally intelligent children and adolescents with ASD has not been studied before. In this work, researchers at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, examined the stability and change of SIS over a four-year period in a group of young people. They studied if and how SIS changed across four years in 55 children and adolescents with ASD. It was concluded that most children (69%) showed the same SIS at both points of study, indicating that SIS might be a relatively stable trait across adolescence.

‘The strength of the present study is its longitudinal design. Despite ASD being a severe developmental disorder, longitudinal studies (especially across adolescence) unfortunately remain an exception, rather than a rule,’ the researchers said. The team added ‘A better understanding of stability and change of SIS across development may ultimately help to improve ASD diagnostic assessments and treatments.’

In further work, a research team has discovered that gene mutations present both in the gut and the brain of the people with autism, confirms that there is a gut-brain connection for the condition.

Chief Investigator, Associate Professor Elisa Hill-Yardin of RMIT University, Australia, said that scientists trying to understand autism have looked at the brain, but links with the gut nervous system have only recently been explored.

‘We know the brain and gut share many of the same neurons and now for the first time we’ve confirmed that they also share autism-related gene mutations,’ Hill-Yardin said.

The study reveals that a gene mutation affecting neuron communication in the brain, and was first identified as a cause of autism, also causes dysfunction in the gut. Up to 90% of people with autism suffer from gut issues, which can have a significant impact on daily life.

‘Our findings suggest these gastrointestinal problems may stem from the same mutations in the genes that are responsible for brain and behavioural issues in autism. It’s a whole new way of thinking about it […] it broadens our horizons in the search for treatments to improve the quality of life for people with autism,’ Hill-Yardin added.

Autism Research DOI:1002/aur.2201

Autism Research DOI:10.1002/AUR.2127

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