As a university student with autism, I take every opportunity to research, write, and talk about autism. During the month of April, Autism Awareness Month, I try to make any of my findings public in the hopes of bringing further autism awareness and acceptance. I realize that some of this research findings may be old news to those veterans in the autism community and that not everyone will agree. However, this is published mainly for those new to the autism community and for those that are looking to understand our community a little better.
This research paper was originally for my Psychology class. It has not yet been graded. I will update this as soon as it is graded.
Feel free to make comments.
What is Autism?
Autism is a neurological disorder characterized by challenges with communication and social skills. Some symptoms may include language delay, echolalia (uncontrolled repetition of speech), lack of eye contact, self-injury, and repetitive behavior. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1 in 68 people are diagnosed with autism each year in the United States, and more than 500,000 autistic individuals will turn 18 over this next decade. Autism is a spectrum from severe autism (SA), Rett’s Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD), Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), High-Functioning Autism (HFA), to Asperger’s Syndrome (ASP), and everything in between. The merging of these disorders is based on findings that the symptom profiles are similar, rather than singular like Down Syndrome—which is more physically distinctive from autism. A famous example of a person with autism is Dr. Temple Grandin. She is an animal scientist and author who revolutionized the livestock industry. Those with autism not only have challenges, they can also have some intellectual abilities such as arts or scientific skills like Temple Grandin. Some main differences between a person with HFA and a person without autism is that autistics have challenges in communication and social skills. According to The Science Daily (2014), Some of the brain functions of autistic individuals have been reduced, while other parts of the brain make up for it and become hypersensitive (The Science Daily, 2014, para. #2,5). My study focuses on some possible causes of autism, the early development of people with HFA, the classification of autism spectrum disorders, the research on autistic brain development, and the life and future of adults with autism.
Possible Causes of Autism
There has been extensive research on the possible causes of autism. It has been suggested that the cause of autism is the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccines, which contained a mercury preservative called thimerosal. However, substantial research has proven this to be a misconception. Sandra Blakeslee of The New York Times (2004) reported that the Immunization Safety Review Committee at the Institute of Medicine issued two reports that said, “measles vaccine was not likely to cause autism based on the epidemiological evidence, and there was not enough evidence to reject or accept a causal link between vaccines with mercury and neurodevelopmental disorders like autism” (Blakeslee, 2004, Para. #11). As a result, thimerosal was removed from MMR vaccines in 2002 despite the misinformation originally believed on the cause of autism. Another theory about the cause of autism is from environmental pollution. Andrey Rzhetsky from Malathy Iyer’s article (2014) stated, “‘Autism appears to be strongly correlated with rate of congenital malformations of the genitals in males across the country’. ‘This gives an indicator of environmental load and the effect is surprisingly strong’” (Iyer, 2014, para. #5). Environmental toxins like pesticides and lead could be one of the most likely causes of autism because it has been proven that toxins could lead to brain damage during fetal stage of human development, especially when the mother accidently inhales toxins. The most recent theory is a genetic mutation known as de novo mutation in the prenatal development as Dr. Nancy Fliesler from the Boston Children’s Hopsital (2017) wrote, “De novo mutations can occur in a parent’s sperm or egg. Or they can occur after egg and sperm meet, arising in an embryonic cell. These are known as somatic mutations or post-zygotic mutations (PZMs). If PZMs happens very early, when the embryo has just a handful of cells, the mutation will show up in most of our cells. But the later PZMs occur during embryonic development, the fewer cells will carry them, making them harder to detect” (Fliesler, 2017, para. #3-4). While these possible causes of autism are stated, scientists and psychologists are still researching for the definite causes of autism. As of today, there has not been as singular scientific fact to prove the cause of autism, it is still being researched.
Early Development of a Person with High Functioning Autism
Between ages 0 to l, there is little or no difference between a baby with HFA and a non-autisitic. However, recent studies have found indication that if the baby is not making eye contact, not babbling, not smiling at his/her parents, or seemly oblivious with his/her surroundings, the baby may have autism. Nonetheless, many parents may not notice the autistic traits until the baby reaches age 2. Through infancy to toddlerhood stage, both the autistic and non-autistic learn to walk on their own through motor development; however, the main difference is that the autistic individual may not say words and comprehend sentences. The researchers Ellis Weismer, Lord, and Esler of Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (2010) explained, “Language abilities are one of the most variable characteristics of individuals with autism.” They also determined that autistic individuals “scored significantly lower than those with PDD-NOS on all developmental measures, including measures of receptive and expressive language.” (Weismer, Lord, & Esler, 2010, para. #6). This also explained the differences with individuals with PDD-NOS, who are those that may also have language delay. Temple Grandin (2010) explained that she learned to speak with a help of a speech therapist. In fact, Grandin did not speak until age 4. She also compared individuals with SA that “may never learn to speak because their brains cannot discriminate among speech sounds” (Grandin, 2010, pg. 42). This helps explain the classification of individuals with different autism spectrum disorders in the early human development.
Classification of the Autism Spectrum Disorder
In addition to the differences between a HFA person and a non-autistic person, there are also differences between those with SA, PDD-NOS, and ASP in human development according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th addition (DSM-V)—a book that classifies psychological disorders. The author of The World of the Autistic Child, Bryna Siegel (1998) pointed out “The twelve diagnostic criteria for DSM-IV Autistic Disorder are grouped intro three areas—social development, communication, and activities and interests” (Siegel, 1998, Chapter 1, pg.16). Both people with HFA and SA experience language delay. However, unlike toddlers with SA, toddlers with HFA may start to use echolalia around ages 2-4, then start speaking full sentences between ages 4-5. Individuals with ASP may not experience language delay, but may instead start communicating earlier than age 2, and may develop advanced vocabulary in specialized interests. People with PDD-NOS may experience language delay, yet those individuals may not fit all the specific diagnostic criteria, hence the term “not otherwise specified”. For example, a person with PDD-NOS may have no problem with eye contact, yet may have problems with some social skills and also tone of voice. What these spectrum disorders all have in common is the deficits in social interaction, lack of eye contact, hard time understanding figurative language, and awkwardness in some motor skills. Additionally, language delay in autism involves the Broca’s and the Wernicke’s area of the brain, as psychologist Dr. Stephen Franzoi (2009) described that the Broca’s area is responsible for language production, while the Wernicke’s is responsible for comprehension (Franzoi, 2009, Chapter 9, pg. 359). In fact, SA is the lowest on the spectrum because of their weak Broca’s area while ASP is the highest. This explains the classification of people with different autism spectrum disorders.
Research Studies on Brain Development Differences with HFAs and Non-Autistics
There are some research studies relating to the differences in the brain development in HFA people and non-autistics including brain volume. In a study published by The Science Daily (2014), there is a slight difference between an autistic’s brain vs. the non-autistic’s brain. Scientists conducted a study with 500 autistics and 500 non-autistics via MRI scanning, ranging from ages 6 to 35. One of the scientists Dr. Dinstein found that the non-autistics “differ by 80 to 90 percent differences in brain volume, while differences in brain volume across autism and control groups differed by two to three percent at most.” Dinstein concluded that the “anatomical measures of brain volume or surface areas do not offer much information regarding the underlying mechanism or pathology of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)” (The Science Daily, 2014, para. #2,5). Another research study found that there is a difference in brain development as according to Targeted News Service (2017) that those scientists gave a dose of valproic acid (VPA) to mice embryos to compare with controls. As a result, the VPA mice developed more hyper-connectivity in the subplate neurons in the brain compared to the Non-VPA, which closely resembles the autistic human brain (Targeted News Service, 2017, para. #6-9). Furthermore, six scientists including McAlonan of Psychological Medicine (2009) compared brain systems in HFA, ASP, and non-autistic patients. Unlike non-autistic patients, HFA patients had greater white-matter deficits in the left hemisphere of the brain—which is responsible for language, logics, and reasoning (McAlonan, G. M., Cheung, C., Cheung, V., Wong, N., Suckling, J., & Chua, S. E., 2009, pg.1888) (see Figure 1). In my opinion, the hyper-connectivity in the brain could be the reason why the HFA brain has higher brain volume than the non-autistic’s brain because many autistic people’s brains work 3-4 times harder than the non-autistic’s brain despite the strengths in visual, logics, or scientific skills (see Figure 2 & 3).
The Life of an Adult with Autism
As an autistic individual passed beyond childhood and teenhood stages, the autistic may continue to struggle through later stages of life. Dr. Franzoi (2009) explained about the crisis in Early, Middle Adulthood, and Maturity stages in Erikson’s Psychosocial Development--stages of how a healthy developing individual should pass through from infancy to maturity. The following crisis are “Intimacy Vs Isolation” in “Young Adulthood”, “Generatively Vs Stagnation” in “Adulthood”, and “Integrity Vs Despair” in “Maturity” (Franzoi, 2009, Chapter 4, pg.132). An autistic going through Erikson’s life stages can face negative outcomes because they may lack social skills, may not know how to handle a relationship, lack concept of time and money, and not being accepted in the workforce without the right help and support—which may possibly lead to depression, despair, and suicide. According to the bureau of labor statistics, 90% of autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed, regardless of IQ or education. Additionally, Kenneth Sumner and Theresa Brown of The Psychologist-Manager Journal (2015) remarked that students’ with learning disabilities including autism were less likely to transition from high school to university. Sumner and Brown also stated the “statistics on the percentage of students with disabilities attending college vary, the U.S. government reported that the percentage is rising, and it recently reported that 11% of college students have disabilities” (Sumner and Brown, 2015, para. #4). Even though there has been a huge improvement in helping adults with autism to have a typical life, there is still a long way to go. Many families and autism organizations work to help people with autism to have a typical life like maintaining a job, healthy relationships, security, and housing, so autistics may not have to face isolation, stagnation, and despair in later stages of psychosocial development.
Autism is a neurological disorder that affects the individual’s ability to communicate and socialize with others; however, autism also may give individuals intellectual abilities in visuals, logics, or scientific skills, among others. Autism is a spectrum disorder; from most the severe to high functioning forms. The diagnosis can be recognized when an infant reaches age 2 and has not babbled or spoke any words, displays repetitive behavior, or if in case of Asperger’s, they may use advanced vocabulary. Researchers are still looking for tangible answers of what causes autism despite new and recent information provided. People with autism including HFA do have life difficulties, but with the right help and social support, people with autism may be able to have a typical life like non-autistics. Dr. Grandin stated that despite her challenges in communication and social skills, she was able to beneficially change the animal livestock industry with her incredible architect skills. She also stated that autism “cannot be cured”, but was able to deal with everyday challenges with the help of her family and therapists. If Grandin can have a successful career in life, then it maybe possible for others with autism to also have one with the right help and direction.
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