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Autism: Causes and Early Identification

Jen Preschern, M.A., CCC SLP

1.  Researchers have identified the genes that cause autism.  There are 100 genes that can recombine in any  way.  This is why no 2 children with autism are the same.   (This is widely accepted by the research community. PBS has a segment on it: )

2.   However, researchers are also looking at what epigenetic causes “turns on” these genes.  Basically, if/what environmental causes are connected with the expression of the genes.    Meaning,  you may inherit your dad’s genes for  high blood pressure.  However, if you eat right and exercise, these genes may never be expressed and you may live to be an old man with normal blood pressure.

For more information on the fascinating new field of epigenetics, check out PBS: (As a digression-  I highly recommend the segment on the Tale of Two Mice.  It describes pre-natal epigenetic causes of obesity. Fascinating)

3.  Jenny McCarthy and Hollywood need to step down .  Autism is not caused by the  MMR vaccine or any other regular vaccine ( at least not those given after a baby is born.  There might be some connection if a mother is given vaccines while pregnant.)

*If anyone is not convinced yet, I can find about a hundred more studies that show that  AUTISM IS NOT CAUSED BY the MMR shot!!! Get your kids vaccinated, and encourage your friends kids to get vaccinated too.     Measles and Rubella is returning because idiots follow the advice of celebrities over the advice of researchers.

4.  There is a correlation (research is not sure if it’s a cause) of paternal age and autism.

5 . While researchers are debating as to exactly WHAT epigenetic factors turn on the autism genes, there is some promising research on exposure to chemicals while  in-utereo

There is a link between pre-natal exposure to common pollutants and autism (one chemical in particular: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon benzo(a)pyrene.    US News did an easy to follow report on this too- second link.

If you are pregnant, or know someone who is pregnant, I recommend eliminating chemicals from your home as much as possible, including the use of plastics for microwaving/storing food/water bottles, and the use of chemical cleaners as much as possible.     I would also look at eating only grass-fed beef and organic milk.   The amount of chemicals in our standard meat and dairy system in the USA is staggering.     High fructose corn syrup while pregnant  is also a no-no.   Look at the labels. These things are all derivatives of processed corn: sucrose, dextrose, fructose, corn syrup.  If  a food item has one these ingredients listed, and it is not a candy product- don’t buy it!    A recent Stanford study proved that this stuff makes you fat.   Another study printed in the recent Economist magazine  showed that a mother’s diet while pregnant pre-disposes her child to the same food preferences.  (I did not provide research on this paragraph here, but I can get it if anyone is interested).      Until researchers can identify what specific chemicals are linked to autism, I’d recommend staying away from all of them if you are pregnant.

6.   If the genes are expressed, autism is caused by abnormalities in the pre-frontal lobe of your brain.  In a nutshell, the left pre-frontal lobe controls language, working memory, executive functions.  The right prefrontal lobe controls the mirror neuron system, which is the location of the ability to feel emphathy or  ”feel” what another person is going through.   Here is an interesting PBS segment on the mirror neuron system:

In children with autism,  the area in the brain responsible for the mirror neuron system, the pons opercularis(the symmetrical site of Broca’s – language production area- on the left hemisphere), is not working as compared to normally developing children.   In a recent FMRI study, the activity recorded in the pons opercularis during a facial expression/matching test  was directly correlated to the severity of autism. In children with the most severe autism, the area was not activating at all!  This means that the part of the brain that is able to connect with other people is just not working!!!

It is also believed that the genes/environment cause the brain to myelinate, or form connections between parts in the brain, improperly-  In some places too much too fast, in other places not enough-  Myelin in the brain is absolutely necessary- It creates connections and allows skills to become automatic.         (As a digression- the myelin that connects the occipital area(vision),with Wernicke’s area(language comprehension), with Broca’s area(language), with the amygdala(emotion regulation), with a not-yet fully formed  yet pre-frontal lobe(goal setting, inhibiting of impulses, attention, working memory)  becomes fully connected around age 6 in most children-  This is why children can being reading at this age!!  Before this time, the brain is literally not connected! )

Thus, a child with autism can not “feel” other people’s emotions,  and they are easily over-stimulated because any incoming stimuli not only activates one brain area like a normally developing child, but large portions of the brain (due to the too strong/too much myelin connections).  It all makes sense-   Children with severe autism  then use compensatory strategies, such as hand flapping/perseveration, in orde to help regulate themselves.  They are also unable to deal with change in the environment, because the area of the brain responsible for regulating change is not functioning properly.

*research that shows more myelin in left and front medial frontal cortex-  These are the executive function areas that help children regulate emotions, set goals,  monitor progress.    They are also the areas responsible for language, and social interaction (the mirror neuron system)

7.  Researchers believe that children can be identified with autism as early as one, maybe even earlier-

Some red flags for very young children-

  • A child spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on dynamic geometric images(staring at fans, watching movement of cars, looking at things not people) – This type of child would be more interested in staring at moving objects than interacting with you.    Meaning, most babies can be entertained by games like “peek-a-boo” for quite a long time.   When you play with normally developing babies, they will be looking at your face and smiling with you.  Children with autism will be more interested in the object that is covering your face in peek-a-boo than in you.  Their eyes would be following the towel you use to cover your eyes, instead of looking at your face when you lift up the towel.
  • Delayed/missing development of eye gaze.  For instance,  with a normally developing child, if you stop playing and look towards another family member, the baby’s eyes will look where you look.    Or, if you point to a cup on the counter, the baby will follow the pointing of your finger and look where you are looking when you say “cup!”    A child with autism will appear to “not be paying attention” and will not follow your gaze or finger points.
  • Delayed/missing development of gestures- Even before babies communicate with words, they use gestures (pointing, pulling on your hand to show you something). If a child is not doing this by age 1, it is a huge red flag.    Gestures are considered the pre-cursor to oral language.
  • And of course,  delayed oral language development-  but all these other factors can be identified much earlier.

8.  What is a parent to do if they suspect autism?  Find a friendly speech/language pathologist! can help you locate someone in the area  or let me know and I can help you find one.

Jennifer Preschern, M.A. CCC-SLP

Jen has worked as a speech/language pathologist in the public school setting and in the private setting. She currently works with Leap Learning Systems in Chicago, IL as a reading/language consultant.  Jennifer holds masters degrees from Northwestern University in speech/language pathology and in learning disabilities, and a school administration degree from Loyola University. She is also certified in early intervention techniques from the Hanen Center and in phonics instruction from Orton-Gillingham.   She has published several teacher resource books, and presented at numerous state and local educational conventions primarily in the areas of reading, writing, and language.

If you would like to contact Jen with any questions, feel free to email her at