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I worry I caused my children’s autism through environmental exposure

One of the biggest questions surrounding autism — if not the biggest — is knowing the cause. There are many unfounded and unscientific reasons floating around created by desperate parents needing an answer. But, scientists who have the necessary knowledge and experience can only give faint hope to the needy.

Nearly all of them agree that autism is caused by a combination of genetics and the environment. They can also agree on which dozens of genes could be linked to autism. All of which is good news.

The bad news is that agreement disintegrates when deciding which elements of the environment could be the “trigger” that activates that genetic predisposition.

Research into genetics has been happening since the ’70s, when twin studies suggested autism is inheritable. However, despite all the research, no single cause has been found — leading many to begin exploring non-genetic causes. The search for environmental risk factors still has a long way to go. In trying to pinpoint those factors, progress has been remarkably slow and difficult. Identifying them has great potential as we have the capability to change elements in the environment — altering genes, though, is still more sci-fi territory than everyday reality.

The reason it has been so challenging is because it is often inherently difficult to definitively prove cause and effect. Look at the vaccine debate: There are people who feel that vaccinations have caused autism, but if that was completely true, wouldn’t there be higher rates of autism? Wouldn’t it have been occurring for decades before this alleged epidemic? What makes those who received vaccinations and were diagnosed with autism different than those who received vaccinations but display no autistic traits? What about those who never received vaccinations but still developed autistic traits?

The vaccination debate is also a leading reason as to why progress has been slow in other areas. The discredited research — and fallout from it — has made scientists hesitant to point out any other factors, only to create a false groupthink that causes more harm than good.

Another issue is trying to ascertain who has been exposed to particular environmental factors and how much exposure was involved — not just for the child with autism, but also for the mother and father. Non-genetic risk factors are difficult to measure in comparison to genes that can be examined via a blood sample. People can be questioned about environmental risks, but may not remember or even realize what data could be important. Instead data most often comes from indirect measurements, such as examining medical records of women and what they were prescribed during pregnancy. Then, researchers can compare those answers against the number of children who were diagnosed with autism. Even these methods are not foolproof as records may state what medication a person was prescribed… but there is no way to know for certain if the mothers actually took the prescriptions or at the frequency advised.

Another issue is the lag time between possible exposure and diagnosis. Autism isn’t something generally diagnosed at birth. There is not a test that can be done in utero or immediately post-birth, identifying a child as autistic — the way there is for many other diagnoses like Down Syndrome, heart defects, etc. Since most don’t get diagnosed until years later — and there is a wide discrepancy between those children who always seemed behind in development versus those who were “perfectly fine” until they hit a certain age — this increases the variables. Over the course of that many years, there could have been any number of exposures to mother and father pre-pregnancy, mother and baby during pregnancy and the child post-birth, making the situation an absolute hurricane of data.

There are two things that should be understood at this point in the autism debate. First, research is ongoing and there are people who will not stop until they examine every side possible to understand why it seems autism is so much more prevalent in our society today, and how should we define it. Second, there are a multitude of unanswered questions by the people who make it their life’s mission to answer them. So, until definitive proof has been given one way or another it is unproductive, even dangerous, to make assumptions — much less terrorize other parents for coming to a different assumption than you.

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