Chances are, if you are reading this blog, you have heard about the new Autism prevalence study that was just published in Pediatrics earlier this week. If you haven’t heard, a recent study found that the prevalence of parent-reported rates of autism was higher than previous estimates. Specifically, they found that 1.1% of all children ages 3 to 17 had autism (1 in 91) as compared to previous estimates of approximately 1 in 150.
Whether or not these new numbers are truly representative of a increase in the rates of diagnosis, autism is an epidemic. The previous numbers of 1 in 150 births were evidently staggering enough that the Obama administration stepped in to help. President Obama has made autism a priority from the first days of his presidency. Less than a week after he was sworn in, The Department of Health and Human Services’ Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee released its first-ever strategic plan for government autism research. President Obama has backed this plan by adding $1 billion to his budget for autism over the next eight years. Altogether, the federal government will provide nearly twice as much funding for autism research in the upcoming fiscal year as we had just three years ago.
On the genetic front, new genes and genomic regions that might be associated with autism have been identified by an international research team.
The researchers identified a single-letter change on chromosome 5 near a gene called semaphorin 5A, which is believed to help guide the growth of neurons and their long progressions, called axons. The activity of this gene appears to be reduced in the brains of people with autism.
The scientists also found a possible link between autism and parts of chromosomes 6 and 20.
In other news regarding the origin of autism, The Drexel School of Public Health will use a $14M NIH grant to establish a network of research sites nationwide that will study possible risk factors and biological indicators for ASD during the prenatal, neonatal and early postnatal periods. The researchers aim to follow 1,200 mothers of children with autism at the start of a new pregnancy and document the development of the newborn through 36 months of age.
In response to the new study of autism prevalence, Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks stated, “These new numbers should serve as a renewed call to action to take on what is clearly a major public health crisis not only in this country, but around the world. People with autism are still not getting the therapies they need and adequate medical care for the medical conditions often associated with this disorder. And our society has yet to come to grips with the fact that this growing population of children with autism will become adults with autism who require a lifetime of services and support. We must act now to address these short and long-term challenges.”
We are attempting to address the treatment concerns of the growing population of children diagnosed with autism at the Ann Arbor Center for Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. My colleague, Rick Solomon, M.D. has been awarded a $1.85 million grant from the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) that will fund a randomized, controlled study of The P.L.A.Y. Project intervention for autism. We are now another step closer to our goal of addressing the national need for play-based intensive autism services. You can read more about this exciting news here.