Research reveals more about autism’s origins; French cling to wet blankets

World Autism Awareness Day shines a light on the disorder and its controversies

John Dyer By John Dyer

Update: Research published in the journal Nature on April 4 found evidence that supports a genetic origin for at least some forms of autism. Three separate teams of American scientists identified so-called de novo gene mutations that play a key role in the disorder. The research also found that children are more likely to develop autism when their fathers are older than 35. News of the research broke a few days after World Autism Awareness Day. For more on autism around the world, read on.

The Empire State Building, Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer statue, the Sydney Opera House in Australia and other international landmarks were lit up by calming blue floodlights to mark World Autism Awareness Day on Monday.

Brazilians attend a mass on the eve of World Autism Day at the statue of Christ the Redeemer, lit by a blue light, in Rio de Janeiro. (Reuters/Ricardo Moraes)

No such tranquility surrounds debates on the origins and treatment of the disorder.

Autism generates great anxiety among parents in the United States, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that 1 in 88 children suffers from the deficit of communication and social skills that mark the condition. That’s a 78 percent increase from a similar CDC report in 2007.

Open question

Nobody yet knows whether the spike is a result of better monitoring and diagnosis or if the U.S. is experiencing a new epidemic. LatitudeNews called Bill Ahearn, director of research at the New England Center for Children, a Massachusetts school for autistic children that has a satellite facility in Abu Dhabi. He told us despite the CDC report “it’s not entirely known as to whether or not the prevalence is or is not increasing. That is an open question.”

Most researchers now believe that the origins of autism are genetic, Ahearn added.

But in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, some parents claim that vaccines triggered the disorder in their young children, a notion popularized by ex-Playboy model Jenny McCarthy, whose organization, Generation Rescue, promotes controversial natural treatments like probiotics and chelation therapy to treat autism.

The British medical journal The Lancet in 2010 dealt a blow to McCarthy and other critics of mainstream medicine when its editors disavowed a 1998 research study linking vaccines and autism. In August 2011, the CDC released a study that came to the same conclusion.

French follow a different path

The new research hasn’t daunted McCarthy and other naysayers. It certainly has not led to global consensus on how to treat autism.

In France, autism is often viewed as a form of psychosis, the BBC reported. Until the health ministry recently prohibited the practice, French doctors would wrap autistic children in wet blankets in a psychoanalytic bid to reconnect them with their bodies.

Elsewhere, doctors use “applied behavioral therapy,” meant to teach autistic children skills they need to overcome social challenges. These techniques were developed in the U.S. and Canada. The idea is to reach autistic children early so they might not fall too far behind their peers.

French psychoanalysts say the Anglo-American approach treats the symptoms, but not the root cause of the disorder — a position that echoes McCarthy’s beliefs. Even in France, the approach causes argument — the French filmmaker Sophie Robert criticized psychoanalytic approaches in her film “Le Mur” (“The Wall”). But the French courts forced her to pull it from YouTube.

Meanwhile, the U.S. isn’t alone in experiencing high rates of autism. Last year, a Yale University School of Medicine study found that in one South Korean community, 2.64 percent of children between the ages of 7 and 12 had the disorder.

That’s more than twice as high as the CDC’s figures for American children.

  • Michael

    For families dealing autism, there are many challenges such as finding appropriate education programs, accessing social services and community support. Rising awareness of the condition and concern about its growing prevalence is important. There are promising research initiatives sponsored by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and at university centers. More pediatricians understand the signs to look for in diagnosis. All of these trends are important and those who care about people with autism and their families will need to work to make sure they continue.