“May increase the risk of autism” studies versus real scientific research

Weird Science

Autism is still very much a mystery, I’m fairly certain that we can all agree on that. Some people may think they have it all figured out (anti-vaccine extremists) but for the most part, everyone admits that there is still a lot to learn.

May Increase The Risk of Autism

As such, study after study seems to hit the news wires with the tag line “may increase the risk of autism” and collectively, the entire autism community rolls their eyes.

Some of these studies in the last year include “Living Near a Highway May Contribute to Autism Risk“, “Jaundice in newborns may be linked to autism“, “Sibling spacing may be tied to autism risk“, “Early Prenatal Vitamin Use Prevents Autism” and the list goes on.

You have to understand how these studies come about. Researchers pick a year, or several years, go back through medical records of children born during those years, determine which ones have been diagnosed with Autism and find something that more than 50% of them have in common.

If they find that 55% of children living close to a highway had Autism, then they can release a news story saying that a study was done that determined that living close to a highway increased the risk.

There’s several problems with this.

  1. They aren’t counting the children that have gone undiagnosed.
  2. A lot of information could be out of date or simply incorrect. Historical records in studies make for a huge margin of error.
  3. When you’re looking for a commonality, you can find virtually anything.

Allow me to clarify #3… let’s say that they could find out if a bird was flying over the house at the moment of conception in 51% of Autism cases. This could result in a study stating that birds flying overhead during sex could increase the risk of Autism.

Luckily, there’s no way they could check that but you know what? It’s possible that it did happen.

Does that mean it really increased the risk? No.

Real Scientific Research

Ah, science. You know, that stuff you see on television where they mix chemicals, dissect and examine the insides of animals and people… you know, science.

The most recent real research to be released states: “Gene Expression in the Brain Offers Clues to Autism’s Roots

This study was done on actual children post mortem (after they died), where they actually opened up and investigate actual brain matter of children with and without Autism.  If you don’t wish to read all of it, here’s the summary:

Working with the brain tissue of youngsters after their death, Geschwind and his team found that compared with nonautistic children, those who had the disorder showed a marked drop in gene expression in two areas of the cerebral cortex, where higher-order processing occurs — the frontal lobe, which plays a role in judgment, creativity, emotion and speech, and the temporal lobe, which is involved in hearing, language and the processing of sounds. These areas have been implicated in autism before.

In addition, Geschwind found that healthy brains showed distinct differences in the level of expression of some 500 genes between the frontal and temporal lobes. But this difference in expression was missing in the autistic brains; the features that would normally distinguish the two regions had disappeared, Geschwind said.

This is actual genetic and scientific proof that the brain of children with Autism are different than those without. Furthermore, it goes on to say:

It turns out that even in the womb, the fetal brain begins to show differences in gene expression between the frontal and temporal lobes, suggesting that the developmental abnormality associated with autism may develop then too.

This suggests that jaundice and vaccines and other “after birth” factors likely have no effect. It does not have much of an effect on other studies that base their focus on the mother during her pregnancy.

Even still, it does show that it is a genetic disorder that is not just something that you can force out of them through discipline or shock therapy.

Some other notable scientific research includes “Early Brain Overgrowth Linked to Autism” and “Researchers Reveal 18 Novel Subtype-Dependent Genetic Variants for Autism Spectrum Disorders“.

Again, looking at real subjects instead of just comparing old data, looking for commonalities.

What do we believe?

I’m not saying that we have to ignore the studies base on researching data and basing conclusions on those findings… those studies have real value and they’re done for a reason. However, as we in the Autism community can see, they seem to be grasping at straws.

It’s a shot in the dark approach at playing with odds in a crap shoot who’s results may or may not be accurate. “May increase” means it might not, and “increase risk” means that there’s still a 0% to 100% chance. That means there are lots of people who’s children have Autism that go against what the conclusion of the study states.

Not very comforting.

However, people that know nothing about Autism nor how these studies are done will read them and base their future pregnancies on that information. They’ll move, they’ll take their vitamins, they’ll make sure not to have a child within a year of the previous one… and their child might still have Autism.

They’ll wonder what they did wrong. As if it was their fault.

I share these studies and stories on Twitter, Facebook and here on this blog because, as I said, it’s valuable information. You and I need to know about them just in case someone asks us “hey, I read on CNN, do you think your child has Autism because you lived close to a highway?” and you’ll need to have an answer because your answer might affect their future decisions, and their future information sharing with others.

Keep in mind though, that maybe some of these studies are right. Maybe the data actually does add up and it does make it more likely that your child will have Autism. Unfortunately, there’s just no real way to know which are wrong and which are right. Just because you and I beat the odds, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t make it more likely. Even though I compare statistical analysis to “real science”, it is real science too.

Until they have definitive proof one way or another, we have to keep an open mind and inform others to keep an open mind. “May increase risk of” is a very very vague statement that is very scary to a lot of people even though it really means not much at all.

Don’t avoid them, don’t avoid the questions and don’t get frustrated with them either. Read them to know them and answer the questions honestly.

About Stuart Duncan

My name is Stuart Duncan, creator of http://www.stuartduncan.name. My oldest son (Cameron) has Autism while my younger son (Tyler) does not. I am a work from home web developer with a background in radio. I do my very best to stay educated and do what ever is necessary to ensure my children have the tools they need to thrive. I share my stories and experiences in an effort to further grow and strengthen the online Autism community and to promote Autism Understanding and Acceptance.

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6 Responses to “May increase the risk of autism” studies versus real scientific research

  1. Tarasview May 27, 2011 at 10:45 am #

    yes, very well said!

  2. maureen May 29, 2011 at 12:22 am #

    bravisimo the article disclaiming shock therapy for autistic children,brilliant and gratly appreciated the audacity and idiocy of that concept is rather beyond contempt from a mom of a non verbal autisic boy

  3. mummy_pig May 29, 2011 at 3:42 am #

    Here, here! I am a mummy of a son with Aspergers & a health professional and some of the ‘research’ out there is utter nonsense. I recently attended the No Mind Left Behind: Social Brain 3 Conference in Glasgow where the latest international research findings were presented & the overall conclusion is that autism is a congenital condition.

  4. Angel May 31, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

    Here’s one that was thrown at me. Taking folic acid during pregnancy may increase the chance of autism.
    I was taking folic acid because we had lost our baby to spinal bifida and was told that we NEEDED to take folic acid to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.

    Until an expert says “here’s definitive proof”, I’m not going to listen!

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