The important testimony before the US Senate last week was of monumental importance in placing on the record of such a high public tribunal the evidence of credible experts confirming what has been known by many for so long: autism disorders are caused by the interaction of genetic AND environmental factors. Autism is NOT entirely genetic in origin. Environmental factors, long neglected in research funding, are involved and future autism research MUST reflect that fact. The overwhelming funding imbalance to date in favor of genetic focused autism research MUST be shifted toward exploration of environmental causes of autism disorders. The Autism Research Paradigm Shift must now pick up speed so that we can find causes of, treatments and cures for, autism spectrum disorders.
The near total dedication of funding towards genetic autism research was outed by Teresa Binstock over a decade ago and today genetics has contributed little if anything to understanding or addressing autism challenges. For several years it has been known that environmental factors are in fact involved in curing autism and in 2007 the University of Minnesota proposed an Autism Research Paradigm Shift:
"Autism research is poised for another paradigm shift, from an irreversible condition to a treatable disease. In the revolutionary paradigm, autism is not a rare disorder with a constant rate but frequent condition with a rising incidence. It is a combination of environmental influence and genetic vulnerabilities. It is both preventable and treatable, not by any one method but by a combination of behavioral and biomedical approaches. Autistic kids are not defective, they are sick but otherwise normal kids, and thus, recoverable.
Creating a premier center for effective treatment of autism is not as simple as adding a new wing on a hospital, purchasing the latest medical technology or creating another diagnostic center.
What is needed is a revolutionary clinical effort premised on the paradigm that autism may well be a treatable and preventable disease.
The University of Minnesota proposal may have been ahead of its time and the proposed paradigm shift has probably been set back by the intensive effort to discredit those who question vaccines. Major media sources have dutifully swallowed the reported pharma line that autism is purely genetic, which, if believed , would preclude further blame being placed on vaccines or vaccine ingredients as causes or triggers of autism disorders in some children. It will undoubtedly take time for the NYT, the Chicago Tribune, the Globe and Mail, CNN and CBC to catch up to the autism research and internet communities but it is now clear that the future of autism research must include a much greater focus on environmental causes of autism. And of course, if they continue to dutifully follow pharmaceutical industry press releases these august media may never catch up or catch on to new developments in our understanding of autism disorders.
There is at least one hopeful sign though. The offficial Autism Speaks press release commenting on the US Senate hearings adopted a fairly bold tone in calling for more emphasis on environmental factors and autism:
"As this hearing reviews studies funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences on environmental factors associated with autism, including toxins and other factors that can influence brain development, Dr. Dawson reiterated that it is important to remember that, "Although genetic factors clearly contribute to the causes of autism, we also need to understand environmental factors and their interactions with genetic susceptibility."
The dramatic increase in autism prevalence over the last decade – increasing 600 percent in the last two decades – underscores the need for more research on environmental factors. "Our understanding of typical brain development combined with what we've learned from examining the brains of individuals with autism indicates that it is important to investigate the roles of the prenatal and early postnatal environment," explains Dr. Dawson. "To investigate environmental factors that may be active during this time, researchers are casting a wide net on potential environmental agents that can alter neurodevelopment, including exposure to infection, pesticides, and chemicals."
If Autism Speaks dares speak so boldly perhaps the Autism Research Paradigm Shift envisioned by the University of Minnesota is fully under way and perhaps we can now look forward to understanding the environmental causes of, and finding treatments and cures for, autism disorders.