While there has always been considerable interest in autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) in children, adolescents and adults, it’s only been in the past decade or two that significant efforts have been made to treat and prevent these disorders. Diagnosis of autism has been gaining recognition as more and more people are identifying with its symptoms. Movies such as ‘Rain Man’ and ‘Mercury Rising’ provide a slightly exaggerated version of what it means to be autistic; however, the truth is not too far off.
Autism Is Not a Simple Disorder
Autism is a complex phenomenon. Not only is there a misunderstanding of the concept, it has been plagued by misconceptions of its cause and methods of prevention, such as vaccines, dieting, and child rearing practices to name a few. Overall, the concept of special mental abilities that is somehow associated with relatively poor interpersonal skills is known to most human beings.
The phenomenon of autism is not binary – in other words – it is not as simple as you either have it or you don’t. There are many shades of gray in the severity and distribution of the axis surrounding mental functions and personal warmth that is the hallmark of autism. Specifically, there are very mild cases and there are such severe cases as portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. These variations have such names as Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). The significance of these subtypes is elusive and poorly understood.
So, why does this human variation occur? The definitive answer eludes us for now. However, there are several clues that have emerged. The current focus is on an imbalance of hormones involved in very early development. The specific hormone eliciting most research is a hormone called oxytocin.
The fact that there are brain/pituitary hormones are related to inducing birth and milk secretions have been known for over a century, however, the nature, property and the actions of oxytocin have been defined only in the past few decades.
Thus, it is important to note that oxytocin (the love hormone) irregularities are extremely uncommon in girls and women, but can occur in boys in men as their biology does not require many of the functions of childbirth and milk secretion. Hence, it is not surprisingly, autism is almost exclusively seen in boys and men!
Although oxytocin changes may be critical to bring about a change in pattern of intimacy and sex, it is not the only hormone that is responsible for such a phenomenon. As of now, other hormones such vasopressin is also considered culprits as they may negate the actions of oxytocin like hormones. Again, we are relatively uninformed about these factors.
Researching Adult Autism
Approximately 50,000 individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) turn 18 each year in the United States. Yet life beyond the school-age years has largely remained uncharted territory in autism research.
Research on autism treatment and support services has long focused on early childhood. On many levels, this is understandable. Early intervention has great potential to improve outcomes, and school systems need to provide appropriate support services. Yet adulthood makes up the vast majority of a lifespan.
How is autism diagnosed? It is critical to note that over-diagnosis and misdiagnosis is common. In fact, even for trained experts it takes a considerable period of time (at times day or days of observation), detailed discussions with family and friends and any medical records. A set of laboratory tests are critical.
It is important that other causes of behavioral changes such as alcohol and drug abuse, head trauma and its after effects, brain tumors and certain known hormonal disorders should not be mistaken for autism and the spectrum of mental and behavioral phenomenon.
Given this background that it is usually the mothers and sisters who get concerned about their male relatives and usually have come to the conclusion about autism long before such boys and men are brought to the attention of physicians.
Since almost all of the individuals with autism spectrum disorder are well behaved, mind their manners and generally are not aggressive; therefore, the role of treatment is solely based on the individual’s needs and wishes. These treatments include special education, counseling and psychotherapy, which bring about mixed results, at best.
The medical community is investing in the research of prescription medication as a treatment option for ASD. Thus, volunteers are critically needed in order to evaluate how effective a medication is for this condition.