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Is Autism Natural: Debunking Myths About the Naturalness of Autism

Explore the question 'Is autism natural?' Unravel myths, understand brain structure, and debunk stigma.

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

To address misconceptions and provide credible information about the query of 'is autism natural', it's crucial to first understand what Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is and its characteristic features.

Definition of Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that typically appears during childhood, under the age of 3 [1]. It is caused by differences in the brain, with some individuals having a known genetic condition, while other causes are yet unknown. Scientists believe that multiple factors act together to alter the most common ways people develop [2].

Autism is considered to be highly genetic, and different genetic changes can lead to identical autistic disorders, a phenomenon known as genetic heterogeneity. Both genetic and environmental factors are involved in the pathogenesis of autism.

ASD can begin before the age of 3 and may last throughout a person's life, although symptoms may improve over time. Some children may show symptoms within the first 12 months of life, while for others, symptoms may not appear until 24 months or later.

Characteristics of Autism

People with ASD often experience difficulties in several areas. They may struggle with developing and maintaining friendships, communicating with peers, and perceiving expected behaviors in school or job settings. Associated conditions such as anxiety, depression, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder may also be present in individuals with ASD.

Diagnosing ASD can be challenging because there is no medical test for diagnosis. Doctors rely on observing the child's behavior and development. While ASD can sometimes be detected at 18 months or younger, many children receive a final diagnosis when much older or even as adolescents or adults, leading to delays in necessary support.

Autism affects each person differently, with unique strengths, challenges, and treatment needs. Current treatment focuses on reducing symptoms that interfere with daily functioning and quality of life. These treatments often involve multiple professionals and are personalized to the individual.

Understanding the definition and characteristics of ASD is crucial for debunking myths about the naturalness of autism. This understanding can also help to shape more inclusive and supportive environments for individuals with ASD.

Factors Influencing Autism Risk

Understanding the factors that might increase the risk of developing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is crucial in the pursuit of understanding the nature of autism. Several factors, including maternal, environmental, and genetic elements, are believed to influence autism risk.

Maternal Factors

Several maternal factors during pregnancy are related to an increased risk of autism. These include pregnancy and birth complications like preterm birth, low birth weight, and maternal diabetes or high blood pressure during pregnancy. However, the mechanisms underlying these associations are still uncertain.

Furthermore, maternal immune system factors are linked to autism risk. These include infections, serious illnesses during pregnancy, autoimmune diseases, and exposure to immune molecules that can affect gene expression and brain development relevant to autism [4].

Prenatal risk factors for autism also encompass advanced parental age, maternal physical health issues such as metabolic syndrome and bleeding, maternal mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and maternal prenatal medication use.

Environmental Factors

Environmental exposures have a role in affecting autism risk. For instance, exposure to the drug valproate during pregnancy, used for bipolar disorder and epilepsy treatment, is known to increase the risk of autism and various birth defects.

Emerging evidence suggests that exposure to air pollution during gestation or early life may increase a child's risk of autism, although specific components of air pollution involved are still being investigated [4].

It's crucial to note that routine vaccinations given during pregnancy, such as those against influenza and whooping cough, do not increase autism risk, and childhood vaccines have been exonerated as contributors to autism [4].

Genetic Factors

Genetic factors are estimated to contribute 40 to 80 percent of the risk of developing ASD, with changes in over 1,000 genes reported to be associated with the condition. Many common gene variations may affect the risk of ASD, with environmental factors like parental age and birth complications also playing a role in an individual's risk.

In about 2 to 4 percent of individuals with ASD, rare gene mutations or chromosome abnormalities are believed to be the cause, often as part of syndromes that involve additional signs and symptoms. Certain genes such as ADNP, ARID1B, ASH1L, CHD2, CHD8, DYRK1A, POGZ, SHANK3, and SYNGAP1 have been associated with ASD, affecting brain development and neural connections. Studies suggest that people with ASD may have more neurons than usual in the brain and abnormalities in the cortex, particularly in areas linked to social behavior, emotions, and language.

Understanding these factors, their interaction, and how they influence the risk of autism can provide a more comprehensive picture of the naturalness of autism, paving the way for more effective interventions and support for individuals on the spectrum and their families.

Brain Structure and Autism

To understand why autism occurs, it is critical to examine the structure of the brain, as brain development plays a significant role in this condition. The brain's development and the alterations in its white matter, as well as the differences in brain structure between genders, all contribute to our understanding of autism.

Brain Development in Autistic Individuals

Children and adolescents with autism often have an enlarged hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for forming and storing memories. The size of the amygdala, which plays a role in emotion processing, also varies among people with and without autism, with disparate results across studies [6]. Additionally, autistic individuals tend to have decreased amounts of brain tissue in parts of the cerebellum, which plays a role in cognition and social interaction.

Furthermore, some infants later diagnosed with autism have unusually fast growth in certain brain regions, particularly in the surface area of their cortex from 6 to 12 months of age. Autistic children also exhibit faster brain volume expansion compared to their non-autistic peers in the second year of life. Brain abnormalities such as rapid expansion and premature shrinkage can occur in some individuals with autism, impacting brain development.

In addition to these changes in brain structure, autistic children who are later diagnosed also tend to have excess cerebrospinal fluid compared to non-autistic peers. This excess fluid can be observed as early as 6 months of age and persists up to age 39. The more fluid present, the more prominent autism traits become later in life.

White Matter Alterations

Changes in white matter, the bundles of long neuron fibers connecting brain regions, are often observed in individuals with autism. These changes, detected through diffusion MRI, are observed in preschoolers, toddlers, and adolescents with autism. Disruptions in the corpus callosum, a white matter tract connecting the brain's hemispheres, may contribute to autism traits [6].

Gender Differences in Brain Structure

Identifying sex differences in autism remains a challenge due to the lower number of girls diagnosed with the condition. However, studies suggest that autistic girls may display an enlarged amygdala, leading to more significant emotional problems compared to boys with autism. Additionally, autism-related white matter changes in the corpus callosum differ between autistic girls and boys [6].

The above findings highlight the complexity of autism, underlining the need for further research to fully understand this condition. By studying the brain's development and structural differences, scientists can gain a better understanding of autism, ultimately leading to improved diagnosis and treatment strategies.

Diagnosis and Prevalence of Autism

Understanding the diagnosis process, early signs, and prevalence rates of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) aids in debunking the question, "is autism natural" and helps us to better comprehend the nature of this condition.

Early Signs and Symptoms

ASD can begin before the age of 3 years and may last throughout a person's life, although symptoms may improve over time. Children may show symptoms as early as within the first 12 months of life, but for others, symptoms may not appear until 24 months of age or later.

Early signs of ASD can sometimes be observed at 18 months or younger, and a reliable diagnosis is usually made around 2 or 3 years of age. Prompt recognition of these signs is crucial for ensuring that children receive the necessary services for better outcomes.

Diagnostic Challenges

Diagnosing ASD can be challenging as there is no medical test for diagnosis. Doctors rely on observing the child's behavior and development. While ASD can sometimes be detected at 18 months of age or younger, many children receive a final diagnosis when much older or even as adolescents or adults, leading to delays in necessary support.

Genetic testing, specifically the chromosomal microarray (CMA) test, can identify genetic causes of ASD in 5% to 14% of individuals with ASD who undergo the test. If CMA and genetic testing do not yield a cause for ASD, whole exome sequencing, which looks for genetic changes in DNA to find a cause, might be recommended.

Prevalence Rates

The prevalence of ASD varies greatly, but it is more than four times as common in boys than it is in girls.

Gender Prevalence
Boys 1 in 42
Girls 1 in 189

The high prevalence and the various challenges in diagnosing ASD underline the importance of awareness and understanding of this condition. By recognizing early symptoms and advocating for early screening, we can ensure timely intervention and better outcomes for children with ASD.

Evolutionary Perspective on Autism

From an evolutionary perspective, various aspects of autism spectrum disorder can be seen as natural adaptations. These include genetic predispositions, systemizing abilities, and social withdrawal patterns.

Genetic Adaptations

Research has put forward the hypothesis that some genes associated with autism were naturally selected due to their adaptive benefits, especially for solitary foraging. Individuals on the autism spectrum may have been psychologically predisposed toward a different life-history strategy, to hunt and gather primarily on their own. The behavioral and cognitive tendencies exhibited by autistic individuals are viewed as adaptations that would have complemented a solitary lifestyle. Hence, the evolution of neurological tendencies in solitary species that predispose them towards being introverted and reclusive may offer important clues for the evolution of the autism spectrum and the natural selection of autism genes.

Systemizing Abilities

Autistic individuals often exhibit a strong ability to systemize and understand nonsocial, natural processes. They are typically skilled in areas that do not require social cognition, such as map reading, mental rotation, physics, mathematics, and motoric systems. This systemizing ability is thought to be part of the genetic profile of autism and may have been naturally selected due to its contribution to tool construction and use.

Social Withdrawal Patterns

People with autism largely withdraw from social contact and become absorbed in private worlds of obsessive interests and repetitious activities. This behavior is similar to that observed in orangutans, who are solitary foragers and spend most of their time alone. Orangutans exhibit limited social aptitude and tend to prefer solitude. The similarities between the behavior of individuals with autism and solitary orangutans may suggest an evolutionary basis for the autism spectrum.

In conclusion, from an evolutionary perspective, the characteristics that define autism may be viewed as natural adaptations. This perspective offers a fresh approach to understanding the nature of autism and the role of natural selection in shaping the genetic and behavioral profiles of individuals on the autism spectrum.

Stigma and Perception of Autism

Understanding the perception and stigma surrounding autism is crucial to debunking the myths and misconceptions about the disorder. This section will explore the autistic identity, the stigma and stereotypes faced by autistic individuals, and their perspectives on autism.

Autistic Identity

Autistic individuals often describe autism as central to their identity and integral to who they are. Autism is not seen as a separate entity but a value-neutral feature, akin to race or hair color. It's society that confers negative meanings onto autism, but individuals with autism consider it to be value-neutral.

Stigma and Stereotypes

Despite their own value-neutral view of autism, autistic individuals face constant exposure to stigma and manage it in different ways, including reframing to more positive understandings of autism, reclaiming language, and strategically using concealment and disclosure. They often find themselves caught in a double bind, as disclosing their autism or concealing it both result in negative treatment.

Stigma and stereotypes surrounding autism include assumptions that autistic people lack verbalness, are male, capable of violence, and that autism is a "White" disorder. These stereotypes can result in dismissive treatment and barriers to diagnosis for autistic individuals.

Autistic Perspectives on Autism

Autistic research participants reject the concept of autism as a disease or disorder and view it as a different brain wiring. They believe that autism does not necessitate suffering and that individuals with autism have the same potential for life as any other person.

Autistic individuals navigate double binds, as they are judged whether they disclose their autism or not. Concealment and outness both result in negative consequences, and participants struggle with the decision of whether to disclose or conceal their autism.

In conclusion, understanding the autistic identity and perspectives can help debunk myths and misconceptions about autism. It's crucial to challenge the stigma and stereotypes faced by autistic individuals to ensure they are treated with respect and dignity.











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