Research on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is still in its infancy, but knowledge about the brain disorder, which is associated with developmental delays and social challenges, is growing in leaps and bounds.
The Harvard Review of Psychiatry published summaries on Tuesday of the most recent findings in ASD research. The journal contains six articles, all of which review the latest studies from the past few years. While the reviews are for professional use by clinicians who work with patients, they offer a glimpse into the state of autism studies today, and cover issues like genetics, medication and how people on the autism spectrum should prepare for college.
The articles will all be available on the Harvard Review of Psychiatry website. Here's a summary all six.
1. There may soon be a way to genetically test children for ASD. So far, there have been "unprecedented advances" in the genetic study of ASD. Perhaps the most significant breakthrough of the past half-decade has been establishing the genetic basis of ASD in the first place, writes author James Gusella, Ph.D.
So far, researchers have identified hundreds of genes associated with varying degrees of ASD risk. Those genes also appear to be related to other neurodevelopmental disorders and psychiatric problems, writes Gusella. The hope is that these breakthroughs will open the door to research on the interplay between environmental factors and genes.
Currently, there is no standard blood/genetic test for diagnosing ASD. Instead, professionals evaluate a child's behavior for signs which include failing to make eye contact with others, repetitive play, sensitivity to everyday noises and a lag in motor skills.
2. Researchers are developing new medicine to specifically address ASD's "core symptoms" (like difficulty communicating and repetitive behavior) by targeting specific neurotransmitters and the hormone oxytocin. They're different from drugs like antidepressants or stimulants that are made and marketed for other disorders, explained author Dr. Laura Politte to The Huffington Post.
"Currently, medication available now can be helpful for particular problems associated with autism -- for example problems with distractibility, hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety -- but not necessarily the core social deficits of autism," said Politte , who works as a psychiatrist at the Lurie Center for Autism at UMass General Hospital for Children. However, new drugs that could more effectively target ASD symptoms with less harmful side effects are on the way, she said.
3. Children with ASD are at equal or greater risk of developing obesity compared to their peers.
"Kids with autism might have some unique risk factors that would make them more susceptible to weight gain," said author Carol Curtin of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center at UMass Medical School. Those factors include delayed motor development, significant sleep problems, the side effects of antipsychotic medications and an unusually picky palate.
"This is a consciousness-raising piece," Curtin told HuffPost about her work. "Obesity isn't necessarily a thing parents have on their radar screens."
4. Severe stomach pain could be part of the reason children exhibit symptoms of ASD, and treating that gastrointestinal issue directly could lessen the severity of those symptoms, writes Elaine Hsiao, a senior research fellow in the California Institute of Technology's Division of Biology and Biological Engineering.
Hsiao studies the "human microbiota," or all the microbes/bacteria that live in the human body. She recently published findings on how moderating the microbes in mice affected their autism-related symptoms, but the work has yet to be validated in humans.
"Microbe-based therapies may be a promising avenue [for ASD] since they could potentially be readily manipulated, easily controlled and long-lasting," wrote Hsiao to HuffPost.
5. Children with ASD can sometimes either be too responsive or not responsive enough to sounds, touches, tastes and smells. For example, they could refuse to wear certain clothes because they feel the tag is scratching them. Alternately, they could be slow to feel pain, which can result in more severe physical injuries.
In the past, doctors thought that these sensory symptoms were peripheral to ASD, writes author Dr. Eric Hazen of Massachusetts General Hospital. In fact, research is establishing that these symptoms may be a core feature of ASD, and could be related to abnormal brain structure and function in people with ASD. More studies are needed on how things like occupational therapy and "sensory integration therapy" can help children ease their symptoms, writes Hazen.
6. More high-functioning children with ASD are going to college, and they can be at greater risk for developing psychiatric issues like depression or anxiety. They're also more likely to drop out of school.
Research on ASD university students is spotty, but author Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, Ph.D., proposed in her research a transition plan for those young people with ASD who do attend college. One idea is to establish a campus support system for the student, much like the parent-teacher-therapist teams that support high school students with ASD. Another idea is for campuses to create a summer transitional program for at-risk students that teaches skills and strategies for navigating different parts of campus life.
ASD affects 1 in 88 children and 1 in 54 boys, but autism received only .55 percent of the National Institutes of Health's $30.9 billion research funding budget in 2012, according to the advocacy group Autism Speaks.
That needs to change, Politte said.
"We have a growing understanding of the biological underpinnings of the disorder, but we're far from having a good grasp," she said. "Autism research in general is underfunded and deserves to be looked at more closely."
Autism researcher Robert Koegel, Ph.D., who is not affiliated with the journal or the articles, noted that while autism research is steadily marching forward, working on solving problems associated with ASD doesn't necessarily mean stamping out uniqueness and idiosyncrasy.
"Autism has a lot of really good things associated with it too, like honesty, humbleness and sincerity," said Koegel, who works directly with families affected by ASD at the Koegel Autism Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The disorder has also been associated with brilliance and child prodigy.
"We wouldn't want an all-out cure because we might throw out the baby with the bath water," said Koegel. "All we want to do is throw out is the problems and retain the strengths."