Autism Q & A: What causes autism?

What causes autism? We don’t know. If parents search for the answer (usually online) they are likely to come across individuals who are absolutely sure they know.

I would urge every parent to walk away from “easy answers.” The “treatments” these individuals propose range from ridiculously easy (take these vitamins or supplements and your child will be better/cured?) to ridiculously expensive (hyperbaric oxygen therapy or stem-cell injections). Instead, look for help through highly reputable resources with real science behind them. This subject is highly controversial and one person’s passionate statements (though strongly felt) cannot replace science.

There are a number of recognized medical conditions that are known to be associated with autism, including a condition called tuberous sclerosis and one called Fragile-X syndrome. Up to 10 percent of children with autism will have an identifiable genetic condition, though this number is likely to grow to as high as 40 percent with expected gains in knowledge and technology. Therefore, 90 percent of what we identify as autism today does not appear to have a well-established cause.

In most cases there is probably not a single cause. The prevailing scientific view is that autism is a polygenic or multifactorial genetic disorder. It is likely caused by the interactions of genes with genes, and/or genes with the environment and there may be different explanations for different individuals. No wonder scientists are beginning to refer to “the autisms.

Next: Is autism genetic?

Daniel B. Kessler, M.D.

Daniel B. Kessler, M.D., is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician and medical director of the Children’s Developmental Center at Easter Seals Southwest Human Development. His private practice, where he provides evaluation and treatment for children and adolescents, is located at Southwest Human Development.

The views he expresses in this series are based on his training, his reading of the literature and his more than 30 years of experience taking care of hundreds of kids on the autism spectrum. The series begins here.


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