From Scranton Times-Courier:

The figure is so astounding it appears to be a misprint at first glance.

One in 110.

That’s the number of American children living with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), based on the most recently published estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Boys are four to five times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with an ASD. And with a 10 to 17 percent annual growth rate, it is the country’s fastest growing developmental disability, according to the Autism Society.

A 2005 census study commissioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare’s Bureau of Autism Services estimated about 20,000 Pennsylvanians, children and adults, were living with autism, although the study noted that the number was on the conservative side. The bureau now believes that number has grown to between 25,000 and 30,000 state residents.

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While a clear and definitive cause for autism has yet to be determined, most physicians believe genetic makeup plays a significant role. Children who have a sibling or parent with an ASD are at a higher risk of also having one, and ASDs tend to occur more often in people who have certain other medical conditions or genetic disorders, such as Fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis and Down syndrome.

“Really, where we’re sort of at is that the genetic investigations are at their earliest stages,” Dr. Challman said. “A variety of genes have shown to be involved in autism. They have to do with how the brain organizes itself. Brain circuitry. But we don’t know what they do. We just know they affect autism.”

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There may also be environmental factors related to the cause of autism, but, as of yet, “there’s no clear evidence,” Dr. Challman said.

Right now, there are countless studies investigating a number of things that might be a potential environmental contributor, be it prenatally or during the child’s early development. The list includes prenatal vitamins, neurotoxins in the air, water and food supply, industrial waste, levels of bisphenol A (BPA) in kids’ canned foods, food additives and preservatives and pesticides, said Donna Ferullo, director of program research for the Autism Society.

Even maternal stress and age at the time of the child’s birth are being studied, Ms. Ferullo said.

“We live in this soup of low-level exposure. There’s so many threats to the developing brain that we weren’t exposed to years ago,” Ms. Ferullo said. “Environment is suspect, but not clarified. There are numerous environmental factors under investigation. The problem is isolating it.”

For years, there have been fears among many parents’ groups that vaccines were a potential cause of autism. This was due in large part to a study that came out of England several years ago that implicated the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella. That study, though, was later found to be fraudulent, Dr. Challman said.

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“So there was some information that was published and it was incorrect and it made people scared,” Dr. Challman said. “It’s a belief that’s not based in science. There’s a mountain of evidence that exonerates vaccines.”

As the CDC collects more data and enhances its surveillance techniques, researchers will begin to understand more about the disease, Mr. Baio said. One recent development, he said, is the establishment of a controlled testing of three groups – children with autism, children with other developmental disabilities and children who appear to be developing typically.

“We’ll be able to compare and contrast across these three groups. The hope of that is we’ll identity some factors, be it risk factors, or things that can assist us with identifying children earlier,” he said. “Then they can get autism-specific treatments much earlier, which would have a much greater outcome.”

“In a lot of ways, we’re behind other fields of study,” Dr. Challman said. “It is frustrating for families. Sometimes the wheels of science do turn rather slowly, but if we persist, we make progress.”

More.

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