June 11, 2012

Autism Rises: More Children than Ever Have Autism, but Is the Increase Real?


Full story: Time Heartland

“The critical finding is that when you look at those children that this study refers to as ‘bloomers’ — the children who seemed very low-functioning at the beginning and then did extremely well — they [tend not to] have any intellectual disabilities,” says Rahil Briggs, assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who was not associated with the research. Low-functioning children without intellectual disabilities were twice as likely to “bloom” as those who had cognitive deficits.

Briggs adds that another “very key” factor is that the mothers of the kids who bloomed tended to be more educated and not minorities. This suggests that low-income immigrant or minority families may not be receiving the services and support for their children that educated, affluent parents are able to access more easily.

With developmental disorders, the earlier a child receives help, the more likely he or she is to overcome disabilities. Early intervention matters because the brain is remarkably vulnerable early in life, built to shape itself to the environment it initially faces. “The young brain is disproportionately receptive to input, whether positive or negative,” says Briggs. “That’s why young children can learn a second language easily and why early exposure to domestic violence and toxic stress are so incredibly damaging.”
If autistic children receive intervention before such coping mechanisms as repetitive behaviors and extreme social withdrawal are firmly entrenched, for example, their innate oversensitivity to their environment is far less likely to become or remain disabling, and their other abilities and gifts can flourish. If these children are reached early enough, “we can actually start to change brain functioning if we provide the right kind of repetitive and focused intervention,” Briggs says.
The research was published in Pediatrics.
Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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