It is a fact that the increase in the frequency of diagnosing autism in the recent period has increased the need for investigation and calculation of risk factors. Even though there is no certain way to calculate the risk of having autism, researchers say that two major groups of risk factors can be identified, mainly genetic and environmental risk factors.
Genetic and environmental risk factors in autism have been researched for years. While advanced parental age, infections of the mother during pregnancy, air pollution, and vitamin D deficiency are among the most important factors, many other factors are considered as risk factors.
Over the past decade, with advancing technology and increased knowledge, researchers have come a long way in narrowing down which conditions and risk factors for autism occur. The findings they obtained are the types of findings that can find more complex treatments for autism that can be applied at an earlier age and prevent the development of the disorder in the early stages when it is noticed.
Risk Factors of Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Having a sibling with autism,
- Having individuals with schizophrenia, bipolar, or similar psychotic disorders in the family,
- Having individuals with mood disorders in the family,
- Having individuals with any mental or behavioral disorders in the family,
- The parents, especially the mother, are over 40 years old,
- The low weight of the baby or mother at the time of birth,
- Premature birth,
- Problems experienced during birth,
- The gender of the baby is male,
- Living in a metropolitan city,
- Excessive exposure to air pollution.
Research tells us that autism tends to result from gene transmission in families. Changes in certain genes increase the risk of a child being born with autism. If a parent carries one or more of these gene changes, they can be passed on to the child. For this condition to occur, the parent does not need to be autistic himself, it is enough to carry the gene. In some cases, these genetic changes occur spontaneously in an early embryo or in the sperm or egg that combines to form the embryo. Again, the majority of these gene changes do not cause autism on their own. It only increases the risk of developing the disease.
Studies also show that certain environmental factors may further increase or decrease the risk of autism in people genetically predisposed to the disorder.
Risks that increase the incidence:
- Advanced parental age (any of the parents)
- Complications during pregnancy or delivery (eg excessive preterm birth [before 26 weeks], low birth weight, multiple pregnancies [twins, triplets], etc.)
- Pregnancies less than a year apart
Risks that reduce the incidence:
- Use of prenatal vitamins containing folic acid during pregnancy
Risks that have no effect on the prevalence:
- Vaccines. Each family has a unique experience in diagnosing autism, and for some, the diagnosis matches the timing of their children’s vaccinations. Scientists have conducted extensive research over the past 20 years to determine whether there is a link between childhood vaccinations and autism. The results of this research are very clear and state that vaccines do not cause autism.
Causes of Autism During Pregnancy
- Older age of the mother
- Mother’s having measles during pregnancy
- Viral infections the mother had during pregnancy
- The excess of drugs used during pregnancy
- The mother’s malnutrition during pregnancy
- The mother’s not getting enough vitamin supplements during pregnancy
- Low mother’s thyroid hormones from birth
- Maternal exposure to radiation during pregnancy
- Pregnancy and birth complications (Premature, low birth weight, multiple pregnancies)
- Technological addiction
- Mental problems
- The child is not wanted
American scientists have found new evidence showing that autism begins in the mother’s womb with their recent research. According to a published study, changes in some parts of the developing brain before birth lead to autism symptoms.
The researchers examined the brain tissues taken during autopsy from a total of 22 children aged between 2 and 15 years, some with autism and some with normal development. He used some genetic markers to see how the cortex part of the brain develops and how layers are formed. While a large proportion of tissue samples taken from children with autism, approximately 90 percent, had an anomaly, a small proportion of the samples taken from children who completed their development normally, only 10 percent, were found to have an anomaly.
It was determined that the neurological changes occurred long before birth, in the social and emotional communication center and the language center of the brain. Researchers have suggested that the baby’s brain, whose cortex is not fully developed, reforms itself to overcome autism. The changes have occurred in parts of the brain rather than the entire cortex, and this has guided researchers in understanding the nature of autism. A better understanding of the brain will also help improve the lives of children with autism.
Investigating the Genetic Code
Scientists have spent many years investigating the factors that can cause autism symptoms, namely risk factors. Most often, they spent a lot of time looking for a specific point in a particular gene or brain. However, all these efforts and research did not give a single and definitive answer. At this point, the scientists decided to change the questions they were asking. It is now accepted as other complex diseases in autism, it is not thought to be linked to a single gene or a single cause, and to be formed by the interaction of many factors.
Scientists have revealed that there are thousands of combinations of genes and dozens of environmental factors that can improve autism. Having these mutations alone does not cause autism development or determine what the severity of autism will be.
Studies on large populations have revealed some factors related to autism risks. Childhood or prenatal exposure to toxic chemicals such as pesticides, phthalates disrupting hormone levels and air pollution were the most prominent factors identified. Exposure to bacterial or viral infections during pregnancy or the mother’s obesity can also lead to the birth of a baby diagnosed with autism.
Despite all this research, what we should keep in mind is that these factors are not sufficiently informed. More and more complex factors than those mentioned here can also cause autism. It is an undeniable fact that there is a correlation between these factors and autism, so it is useful to be careful.
Scientists have gained ingenuity over the years in assessing risk factors that have already been identified and other potential risk factors. In an ongoing study at the University of California, those who develop autism track a wide variety of genetic and environmental factors for two-year-olds and two-year-olds with no signs of autism. The reason why this study was started at such an early age is to check whether autism comes from the family or not. The population studied in this study are families who already have a child with autism. The behaviors of the siblings of children with autism were followed. Mothers carried out this follow-up work.
This research even started during the mother’s pregnancy with her second child. Simultaneous questionnaires could be applied to the mother, questions could be asked and the fetus could be examined. Even the development process of the brain of the fetus could be examined.
Scientific studies investigating twin studies, genetic changes, and brain structure have been conducted to support risk factors and genetic studies in the field of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
- Twin Studies: Twin studies are the most important studies that provide us with information about genetic reasons and shed light on research. Studies have been conducted with both identical twins and fraternal twins. The incidence of autism spectrum disorder in both identical twins is much higher than in fraternal twins. If one of the identical twins is diagnosed with autism, the probability of getting this diagnosis is between 60% and 90% for the other.
- Genetic Mutations: According to the results of dozens of studies conducted and published in the field of autism spectrum disorder, it has been stated that not only a handful of high-impact genes but hundreds of tiny genetic mutations can cause autism. More than 300 genes have also been found to be associated with this condition.
It has been determined that one-fourth of individuals with autism spectrum disorder have these tiny mutations in their DNA along with other mutations. Most of the tiny genetic mutations are “de novo” and do not inherit from the mother or father to the child, and in fact, autism develops in the early stages of pregnancy. The striking factor in these studies was the advanced father age. In other words, there is a great correlation between advanced parental age and the probability of having a baby with autism.
- Brain structure: According to the results of the research carried out in recent years, autism has been tried to be explained in the forms of brain connection disorder, brain developmental disorder, and brain balance disorder. It has been determined that genetic factors cause various abnormalities in the structure and functioning of the central nervous system and the brain, which is a part of this system. For example, studies have shown that the brains of some children with autism are larger than normal, some children with autism have their heads smaller than their usual developing peers when they are born, and these can be considered autism risk factors at later ages.
Autism Spectrum Disorder has been evaluated in terms of environmental factors besides genetic factors. Scientists have also investigated environmental factors by supporting them with a number of studies. Vaccines, nutrition, and environmental pollution have been focused on and examined in autism research on the environment.
- Vaccines: As a result of research on vaccines, the result is that being on the autism spectrum is not associated with any vaccine. Research on this subject has been carried out by a joint study of dozens of different scientists from dozens of different universities. In this study, 351 children diagnosed with autism and 31 children who completed their development normally were included. Studies have shown that there is no relationship between autism symptoms and developmental retardation and the postpartum measles vaccine. This much research on this vaccine and the fact that the vaccine has been the subject of many discussions has caused some countries to remove this vaccine from the obligation.
- Gluten-containing foods: It is a fact that we all know that individuals with autism have stomach and intestinal problems. The main factor in these problems is the casein proteins found in wheat, oat-like grains, milk, and milk derivatives. However, according to the results of recent research, no relationship has been found between gluten and casein and autism.
- Heavy metals: Another factor investigated is heavy metals or environmental toxins. Whether environmental factors cause autism is a very important research topic. However, according to the researches, there is no significant link between the presence of heavy metals in the body and autism.
In conclusion, since the environmental factors of autism spectrum disorder are not known precisely, it is not possible to take precautions at this stage. However, after diagnosis, especially if education is started at an early age, it can provide a permanent behavioral change in individuals with autism.
Myths About Autism
Nowadays, with the development of the diagnostic system, there is an increase in autism cases. Although it is more common in boys, its prevalence in the general population is known to be around one percent. However, the increase in the rate of diagnosed children in recent years has brought many false beliefs.
Children with autism have high intelligence. Autism basically refers to the difficulty in social communication. The interests of children with autism are very limited. In some cases, this limited interest manifests itself in a variety of skills. For example, the ability to draw very detailed what he observes, to play an instrument, to do complex mathematical calculations in seconds. There are quite a limited number of such children who are considered to be high functioning in the diagnostic group.
All children with autism have mental retardation. Autism is not mental retardation. However, in certain cases, problems related to intelligence may accompany comorbidities. Some children with autism can learn to read and write, complete a certain academic level (such as middle school, high school, university), but it is very difficult to observe the mentioned skills in children with severe autism or mental problems.
Children with autism have special abilities. Individuals with special skills can be found in the group with mild autism symptoms and high functioning. They may have special skills in areas such as music, painting, or math. For example, a child in the high-functioning autism group may depict a city view from a bird’s eye view to the finest detail, but on the other hand, he may not be able to create original content on his own.
Autism is caused by family. The belief that the relationship between mother or primary caregiver and baby is the cause of autism is a common myth. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder in which social communication skills are lacking and repetitive behaviors are present. These innate characteristics of the baby can change the interaction of mother and baby. For example, if the baby does not respond to the mother’s social messages, such as a smile, it can negatively affect the relationship between mother and baby. However, variables related to family attitude are not causes of autism.
Being exposed to the screen as a baby causes autism. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, watching television does not cause autism. On the other hand, television cannot provide the required reciprocity in social interaction. For example, when the mother-baby is playing, the mother reacts to the baby’s behavior and smiles, and the child approves of this behavior. However, while watching television, the baby cannot establish a mutual relationship in this direction. Too much television exposure in infancy can negatively affect the social development of the baby, but it is not the only cause of autism.
Nutrition and vaccinations cause autism. Although there are opinions that conditions such as nutrition, vaccines, toxic and heavy metal exposure during pregnancy cause autism, the studies conducted do not support these views. It is observed that families resort to means without medical basis for treatment purposes based on such views, but such practices, which have not been scientifically proven, are very likely to harm children.
Autism can be cured. It is very important to differentiate between autism treatable rationale and early stimulus deficiency. If the emotional, social and cognitive stimulus environment needed in early infancy cannot be provided, autism-like behavior patterns can be observed in infants/children. However, when the appropriate stimulus environment is created, it is observed that children develop their social skills and can establish relationships.
A scientific way to eliminate autism has not yet been discovered. Medical support in autism is very effective in reducing the severity of related symptoms. In this way, it can be ensured that children can continue their daily lives and continue their education in the school environment. The drugs used to relieve the symptoms must be prescribed by a specialist physician or psychologist. In addition to medical support, education programs are carried out to support children in special education and rehabilitation centers in order to support self-care and basic communication skills. It is very important to support children at an early age with such educational activities.
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