The neurological disorder, autism, has come under much scrutiny in the last few years. This is primarily due to a perceived increase in children diagnosed with the affliction. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), which include autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder, may be seeing a rise in numbers due to both a wider definition of the problem and an actual boost in incidence. Moreover, recent studies are now hypothesizing that environment may be a significant cause of autism.
While recent data released in the PLoS Computational Biology journal does not definitively state that environmental factors cause autism, there is enough evidence to show a possible correlation between the two. This new information, gathered by looking at 100 million Americans, was obtained by cross-referencing incidence of birth defects linked to environment with incidence of autism. The study also took into account factors of ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status.
In counties that showed high rates of defects at birth, there also appeared to be an increase in ASDs. Furthermore, the correlation seemed to be much more significant in males rather than females. However, this is not a huge surprise, as experts have believed, for some time, that incidence of autism is greater among males. Such environmental factors suspected in causing the malformations at birth include pesticides, lead, plastics and medications. Among the birth defects are malformations such as micro-penis and undescended testicles.
It was found, according to Andrey Rzhetsky, PhD, of the University of Chicago, that there was a 238 percent increase in incidence of ASD in boys for every one-percent increase in birth defects related to the reproductive system. There also, appeared to be a correlation between ASDs in children of both sexes and defects concerning non-reproductive organs. Other non-environmental factors that have been thought to cause ASDs consist of influenza in pregnant women and prescription drugs taken during pregnancy.
Rzhetsky added recently: “I suspected that connection between environmental status to rate of autism might exist, but the signal is much [greater] than I expected,” Most advocates, like Alycia Halladay of Autism Speaks have long held the belief that autism is not the result of one “smoking gun”, but a mixture of factors. She added that Rshetsky’s findings are augmenting the, already pervasive belief, that environment does play a role in the cause of autism. Moreover, Rzhetsky himself has pointed out that, while genetics and surroundings are significant in this field of study, efforts should be focused on “which environmental exposures matter.”
Autism, depicted famously by Dustin Hoffman in 1988’s Rain Man, is often characterized by social inabilities, communication problems, emotional restrictions, and restricted patterns of behavior. It is believed by both the CDC and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke that 1 out of every 88 children are likely to develop an ASD – while boys are 4 times more likely to be affected than girls. While experts seem to all agree on multiple contributing factors to autism-related disorders, environment may be a greater cause than previously assumed. Furthermore, the recent studies may hint at just one more reason for societal concern over pollution.
By Josh Taub