Kristin Schafer

Kristin Schafer

1 in 54 boys? Time for autism prevention.

If we set our minds to it, we can turn back the rising tide of autism. But it will take the courage to embrace the following common-sense goal, in both policy and practice: Expecting parents and young children should not take in chemical contaminants that are known to harm developing minds.

This week, scientists released a list of exactly which contaminants we're talking about. The top 10 chemicals contributing to autism and learning disabilities include commonly used pesticides, as well as chemicals found in many consumer products. The scientists tell us the list is likely to grow. But for now, it's time to act on what we know.

This year's Autism Awareness month, "celebrated" in April, has been marked not by the usual blue ribbons to raise awareness but by release of new and powerful studies documenting the scope and potential causes of the disorder.

Epidemic proportions

To kick off the month, the Centers for Disease Control released the latest figures on children with autism in the U.S. They estimate that 1 in 88 children is now affected by "Autism Spectrum Disorder," also known as ASD. Boys are more likely to have the disorder, with 1 in 54 affected.

These numbers reflect a 78% increase in prevalence since 2002, with the largest rate of growth among Hispanic and black children. Public health experts now refer to this dramatic nationwide trend as an autism epidemic.

With a 78% increase in prevalence since 2002, we now face an autism epidemic.

This data comes on the heels of a groundbreaking study earlier this year in South Korea, where researchers estimated that 1 in 38 children between the ages of 7 and 12 were affected by the disease.

While CDC's spokespeople focus mostly on how data can help them provide support for families affected by autism, the agency does flag the need to better understand what's behind the growing numbers. "To understand more, we need to keep accelerating our research into risk factors and causes of autism spectrum disorders," says Coleen Boyle, director of the agency's National Center of Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.

Studies link diet, chemicals & genes

That was at the beginning of the month. In the following few weeks, findings on the "risk factors and causes" of ASD came fast and furious. Here's a summary of just a handful of the studies released:

  • In Minnesota, researchers explored the interaction of dietary factors, gene expression and exposure to organophosphate pesticides and other environmental contaminants. Among other findings, they flag that mineral deficiencies linked to high fructose corn syrup consumption make developing minds more susceptible to the neurotoxic effects of pesticides.
  • A trio of studies published in Nature find that fathers are four times more likely than mothers to transmit tiny, spontaneous gene mutations to their offspring that in turn increases the risk of ASD. The likelihood of transmission increases with the father's age.

All of these studies show how complex the path to our autism epidemic has been. The fact that older fathers are more likely to pass these mutations along strengthens the theory that the mutations themselves may be linked to the fathers' environmental exposures  — which, of course, increase over time.

Here's how Dr. Thomas Insel of the National Institutes of Mental Health explains it in his article entitled The New Genetics of Autism: Why Environment Matters:

It is important to understand that de novo mutations may represent environmental effects. In other words, environmental factors can cause changes in our DNA that can raise the risk for autism and other disorders.

And finally, just this week a group of doctors released — as promised — a list of the ten neurotoxic chemicals most likely to be behind our growing rates of autism. This powerful "Most Wanted Chemicals" list is based on a compilation of studies including five new papers from researchers across the country. It gives parents, public health officials and policymakers a powerful blueprint for real changes that will protect our children and stem the frightening autism tide.

Let's hope next year's Autism Awareness month can be a true celebration — of all the progress we've made toward prevention. Starting now.

Kristin Schafer

Kristin Schafer

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