• Question: Why do people get autism?

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      Asked by LIV to katy, Lauren, Richard, Stuart on 16 Mar 2016.
      • Photo: Lauren Laing

        Lauren Laing answered on 16 Mar 2016:

        Good question Liv!

        Autism is a general term for a group of complex disorders of brain development. Characteristics include difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Some persons with autism excel in visual skills, music, math and art.

        Scientist think that autism has its roots in early brain development. However, the most obvious signs symptoms of autism tend to emerge between 12 and 18 months of age. Some infants only lose certain skills and develop autism when they turn 2 years old!

        There is a lot of research into the causes of autism, we now know that there is no one type of autism. Over the last 5 years, scientists have identified a number of rare gene changes, or mutations, associated with autism.

        Scientists have identified more than a hundred genes involved in autism risk. There are some genes which are associated with being involved in predisposition, or susceptibility to develop autism, and also a number of non genetic, or environmental factors, further increase a child’s risk.

        Some of these environmental factors involve events before and during birth. They are thought to include the age of the parents at the time of conception, illness of the mother during pregnancy, extreme prematurity and very low birth weight, particularly birth difficulties involving periods of low oxygen to the baby’s brain. Mothers exposed to high levels of pesticides and air pollution may also be at higher risk of having a child with Autism.

        Scientists believe that these factors, by themselves, do not cause autism. Rather, in combination with genetic risk factors, they appear to modestly increase risk.

      • Photo: Richard Friend

        Richard Friend answered on 16 Mar 2016:

        We don’t know yet. Some people have had some ideas about what causes it, but some of these have been dangerously wrong – one person said that a certain vaccine caused autism, and before he was found out to be a complete fraud, loads of people had decided not to have the vaccine just in case. People started getting diseases which would have been prevented by having the vaccine, and a number of epidemics happened just because of what this one man said. Sad story.

      • Photo: Stuart Atkinson

        Stuart Atkinson answered on 16 Mar 2016:

        Autism is the name given to a range of neurodevelopmental conditions. Typically people with these conditions have social or communication problems, or may have specific interests or like to do things in a very particular way. This can mean they have great problems interacting with other people if their condition is not understood.

        They may have highly developed skills in certain areas, and this is often how they tend to be portrayed when in film and TV eg Dustin Hoffman’s character is the film Rain Man, the boy in the film Mercury Rising, or even Dr Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory (there is some agreement that his character shows signs of autism, but the show’s writers have never specifically said this). I find this a bit stereotypical of the portrayal of the condition, just concentrating on the fact that certain people can have great skill in a very specific subject, but that’s Hollywood for you!

        Some children show it very early on, and others show no signs until a few years old. The exact cause is not known but there are thought to be risk factors including genetic ones (for example it appears that siblings of children with autism are much more likely to also have it, and it is more common in identical twins than non-identical twins), medical conditions during pregnancy such as diabetes, the age of the parents, and also certain medications taken in pregnancy.

        It’s a lot better understood than it was was I was at school, which is a good thing.