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Dec
17

Science Fair: Variations on a Theme

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Science Fair

An occasional column about science news pertaining to autism

Compiled by Robert B. Waltz

 

Science Fair

 

An occasional column about science news pertaining to autism

 

Compiled by Robert B. Waltz

Are There More Where You Came From?

You may well already have seen this, perhaps even in other places on the AuSM site: A new report from the National Center for Health Statistics estimates the prevalence of autism among children at an amazing 1 in 45, up from 1 in 68 in the latest Centers for Disease Control estimates. Click here for another story on the topic.

Commentary: I've seen the original paper as well as these news stories (thanks, AuSM!), and caution is indicated -- AuSM, for instance, is still quoting the 1 in 68 rate. The reason is that the methodology of the survey is changed, and in any case it is only a survey -- sort of like an opinion poll rather than actually going out and measuring something. Parents were asked to fill out a questionnaire asking if their children had autism or other problems. This year, autism was made more prominent, so people were more likely to notice and report it. Also, the survey asked if they had been told their child might have a condition; there was no test to see whether this was actually right, or if the diagnosis had been confirmed. With so many more people knowing about autism these days, it is surely more likely that they will check it off whether their children have it or not. And surveys are an imperfect mechanism anyway, and besides, we're starting to see signs of false autism diagnoses. So there is good reason to think that this survey puts the rate of autism too high -- probably the first time that has ever happened. Still, it's almost certain that the rate of autism is on the order of 2% of the population. That has not changed. Whatever the exact figure, it's a lot of people who need a lot of help. As you've probably noticed by now....

Where There's a Brain Cell, There's a Way

Science is slowly chipping away at the question of how the brain wires itself to do what it does, and a recent paper reveals details about how nerves know where to connect.

Commentary: This article never mentions autism, but there is strong reason to believe that at least some of what makes autism autism is misdirected nervous connections -- the links between different parts of the brain are too strong or too week. Thus there is good reason to think that this research will eventually help our understanding of autism. The techniques described also hint at methods that might be used to cure autism. Which, of course, is a matter of great controversy.

Maternal Hormones Influence Chances of Autism

A Swedish study shows that a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome, which results in hormonal abnormalities, seems to cause mothers to have more autistic children.

Commentary: This study provides some confirming evidence for something that has long seemed obvious (to me, anyway) from the data: that autism, like schizophrenia and some other mental conditions, follows what is technically known as a "diathesis-stress" model -- a diathesis being a genetic predisposition and a stress being something that causes the predisposition to become real. That is, you need some autistic genes to be prone to autism, but environmental factors determining whether you actually have autism and, to some extent, the nature of the autism. This ties in with the article cited above: Environmental factors help determine how a brain is wired. If the brain has all standard-neurotypical genes, it will come out neurotypical no matter what the environment, but if the brain has autistic genes, then things like hormonal imbalance and antidepressant use can bias it toward autism. I strongly suspect that this also influences the type of autism -- that is, the pattern of strengths and weaknesses one develops. But, since little research is done on autism subtypes, very little is being done to test that.

People with Autism Learn Differently -- at least, 16 of them do

A recent study out of Carnegie Mellon University finds a difference in the way people with autism learn to recognize patterns.

Commentary: Our first observation should come as no surprise to anyone who has read this column; it appears that autism researchers have an allergy to statistical significance. The sample size is too small. And the story speaks of "high-functioning" people with ASD when we know that nothing is as simple as high versus low functioning. But the real concern I have is that the people are just tagged as "high-functioning adults with ASD," as if everyone with ASD is the same. Were these people good at pattern recognition? Bad at pattern recognition? Visual thinkers? Non-visial thinkers? Without knowing that, I wouldn't trust this to generalize to all adults with autism. Just to sixteen of them.

 

Special Diets Not So Special?

For decades, some people with autism have sworn by gluten-free and other special diets as a way to manage symptoms. Now, a very well-designed study, which carefully took children off gluten and casein and then re-introduced them, finds that these products had little effect:

Commentary: The fact that we have contradictory studies on this point should remind us of the old statistics rule, "correlation is not causation." So many people have sworn by special diets that it is hard to deny that they have some effect -- and yet, the methodology of this study strikes me as being very well done and very convincing. So what gives? Of course, there is a lot the story doesn't tell us, such as the size of the sample. It may be that the authors simply didn't get any kids with real digestive problems; that in their cases the diets had worked because of placebo effect. But I'm going to make a different guess. We know with absolute certainty that the state of one's intestinal micro-biome can affect health, including emotional health. And most people who go on gluten-free or other special diets don't just cut out gluten or casein; in general, they adopt diets that are healthier all-around. Which improves the health of their micro-biome -- and hence their health. So I think the contradictory results can be reconciled: Most people with autism are not helped by eliminating gluten or casein, but they are helped by a just-plain-better diet. (And some, of course, do have lactose intolerance, or casein intolerance, or celiac disease, the proper name for severe gluten intolerance.) So if there is a moral in here, it's that eating better never hurts and may help.

Author bio: AuSM member Robert B. Waltz was diagnosed with autism in 2012. He earned his B.A. in physics and mathematics from Hamline University in 1985. He is the author of three books on folklore, the editor of the online folk music database The Traditional Ballad Index, and recently has been informally studying the biology of autism.