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Feb
05

Science Fair: When You Know One Person With Autism...

Science Fair

An occasional column about science news pertaining to autism

Compiled by Robert B. Waltz

Hide and Seek

This probably files under "Told you so," because we already knew it, but this supplies a minor bit of confirmation: Women with autism are better at hiding it because they're more social.

Commentary: Experts have been saying this for years, so it should come as no surprise. And (as usual) the sample size is not statistically meaningful. But confirmation never hurts.

Science Fair

An occasional column about science news pertaining to autism

Compiled by Robert B. Waltz

Hide and Seek

This probably files under "Told you so," because we already knew it, but this supplies a minor bit of confirmation: Women with autism are better at hiding it because they're more social.

Commentary: Experts have been saying this for years, so it should come as no surprise. And (as usual) the sample size is not statistically meaningful. But confirmation never hurts.

Help for Autism with ADHD -- Maybe

It used to be that clinicians weren't allowed to diagnose autism and ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) in the same patient. Since 2013, it is possible to diagnose both. And that means that we might want to find treatments for people who have both. Here is one of the first clinical studies on the matter.

Commentary: The obvious problem here is that the sample size is too small to mean anything. But we know that medications can help with ADHD, and it seems likely that if one can help a patient's ADHD, one can help treat the autism too. So, although this study is completely meaningless, it may point to better results in future.

Which Side Are You On?

A study looking at the psychological health of those with gender dysphoria (problems with their biological gender) finds that an unusually high rate are described as having Asperger's Disorder:

Commentary: I find it a little curious that this study still refers to "Asperger's" rather than autism, but we'll let that pass. Of more concern is the small size, given that it's a retrospective study (meaning that there is a real problem of selection bias). I'm also worried that it uses Simon Baron-Cohen's Autism Quotient test, because the Baron-Cohen test is by the man who gave us the "extreme male brain" hypothesis -- meaning that the test itself has a gender bias. Still, I think it likely that this result will stand up. It supports a conclusion that I've seen in many other places -- that people with autism generally are closer to the traits of the opposite gender than are neurotypicals (that is, that men with autism have more feminine traits than normal men, and women with autism have more masculine traits. A lot of those "normal" gender traits, of course, are cultural rather than biological, but some aren't, so I would hope this will be followed up).

Another Environmental Factor...

A report in January finds a slight link between a mother's use of asthma drugs during pregnancy and the child's chances of autism.

Commentary: There really isn't much here except an interesting but slight correlation. We can't be entirely sure it's real. File it under "something to keep our eyes on in future."

To Seek Out New... Genes

There have been a lot of reports in recent years of autism being caused by genetic mutations. You can add another one -- although be warned, the text in the first paragraph gives a very misleading impression:

A longer, but perhaps clearer, story is at Forbes.

Commentary: I will confess to being very skeptical about the mutations-cause-autism hypothesis. For one thing, we know that most autistic children have parents with unusual traits of their own, and many have autistic siblings, so the parents must have had the genes too! What's more, although we know that autism is caused by genes, we also know that it isn't just one gene. So paying special attention to one gene, and mutations in it, ignores large parts of the problem. But this might be a small piece of the greater puzzle of causes.

Eureka Moment #47,523 or so...

Until 2013, Rett's Syndrome was classified among the autism-related disorders. For good reason, it has been split off: It is caused by a specific genetic defect. That has been known for decades. Now researchers have found at least part of the reason why that genetic defect causes autism-like symptoms, and hope to use that information to effect a cure:

Commentary: Of all the stories I've seen lately claiming to have found The Cause of Autism (as if there were a single cause), this strikes me as the least likely to be relevant. Rett's Syndrome is tragic, but it differs fundamentally from autism in that it is progressive and relentless. People with autism are afflicted in various degrees, but they don't get worse as they grow older. Girls with Rett's Syndrome get progressively worse, and very quickly. So I don't think this will lead to much for people with autism. On the other hand, if it leads to better treatment for those with Rett's, which is tragedy enough, that is still very good news.

New Science, Old Names

A French study claims to have found an difference in the MRI brain scans of those with Autistic Disorder as opposed to Pervasive Developmental Disorder or a typical brain. The peculiarity occurs in the part of the brain known as Broca's Area, which is essential for speech:

Commentary: You may have spotted the problem with this one just from my preface. "Pervasive Developmental Disorder," as of 2013, is the same as Autistic Disorder. It's all Autism Spectrum Disorder now. So what have they actually found? I suspect it's a real problem -- a peculiarity in the speech centers of the brain. Since many people with autism do have trouble with speech, this defect will be more common in those with autism than those without. It might even be used to diagnose autism in the cases where it exists; it's just that its absence won't mean anything. Try an analogy: If you have a tumor on your skin, it means you have skin cancer. But if you don't have a tumor, you may still have skin cancer -- it's just that you can't spot it simply by looking. So, once again, it appears we are looking at a case where they are claiming a whole answer when what they have found is maybe 2% of an answer.

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.