It’s hard to believe that, within living memory, autism was not recognized as a distinct condition. And even within the past 15 years, autism was seen as a fringe condition that affected a tiny minority of the global population.
How the tables have turned. Today, virtually all serious clinicians and the bulk of the scientific community accept that autism is a real condition that warrants serious concern and focused action. It’s been heartening to see the medical community spring into action to give succor to individuals living on the spectrum—and their often-overworked loved ones.
Thanks to organizations like the Autism Research Trust, a U.K.-based research group supported by individual donations, government grants and philanthropic organizations like Sanjay Shah’s Autism Rocks, we know more about autism today than ever before. Humanity has poured billions of dollars and millions of research hours into the development of new diagnostic techniques and treatments. Though we still have a long way to go before we understand the root causes of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and the ideal treatments for every affected individual, this is certainly worth celebrating.
If you or a loved one is affected by ASD, you clearly have a dog in this fight. Here’s what you need to know about the state of autism treatment and technology right now.
Autism’s Symptoms Are No Longer Seen As Afflictions
This isn’t really a triumph of science, but it’s an important shift nonetheless: away from a paradigm that implicitly blames individuals living on the spectrum for their behavior and toward a paradigm that underscores the positive side of common ASD symptoms. Many people who live with ASD exhibit above-average—and sometimes truly extraordinary—visual learning, organizational, problem-solving and mathematical skills. It’s past time we encouraged the development and expression of those skills.
Parents and Loved Ones Are Paramount
It’s well-known that children with ASD struggle to form lasting relationships or even communicate effectively with peers and authority figures. In childhood, parents are invariably the most reliable and trusted allies for socially challenged individuals with ASD. Clinicians now believe that parents should be empowered to directly practice behavioral therapies, rather than “manage” their kids’ conditions between visits with trained professionals. Parental education may well bring a decentralized approach to autism treatment.
Preventive Treatments May Be Within Reach
With the caveat that autism symptoms should not be seen as “weaknesses” per se, the scientific community is increasingly excited by the potential of preventive or mitigatory ASD treatments. Early detection is paramount; study after study shows that children respond better to early, aggressive treatment following diagnosis—ideally at 18 to 24 months. And researchers continue to pursue blood tests capable of detecting ASD at or near birth.
Speech-Language Therapy Facilitates Peer-to-Peer Communication
According to Autism Speaks, up to one-third of young people with autism are officially nonverbal, meaning they’re unable to engage in sustained verbal communication. In recent years, the value of assistive communication devices (technologies that empower children with ASD to voice their thoughts and feelings) has become plain. So too has the value of holistic speech-language therapies that include visual communication techniques and “gamified” curricula. Children who engage in sustained speech therapy communicate more naturally, effectively and readily than peers who haven’t been exposed to such therapies.
Sensory Inputs Can Be Managed, If Not Controlled Outright
Many children with ASD struggle in stimuli-laden environments: public places with loud noises, bright lights, strong smells. Sensory integration therapy, a relatively new occupational therapy discipline, trains children with ASD to respond positively to sensory inputs by recognizing and anticipating common stimuli, such as the touch of a parent’s hand or the glow of a fluorescent light. The therapy can’t completely eliminate outbursts or breakdowns, but it can dramatically increase comfort in public situations.
Medication Is Not the Be-All and End-All
There’s no such thing as a “cure” for autism. Parents expecting the discovery of a medication or therapy that can turn ASD off like a switch will continue to be disappointed for the foreseeable future. But that’s not to say medication has no place at all in ASD treatment regimens. In many children and adults with ASD, the symptoms of ASD—anxiety, depression, hyperactivity—respond quite well to medication. That’s a valuable base upon which to build cognitive and behavioral therapies.
What Will the Next Decade Bring?
In “10 Years of Progress: What We’ve Learned About Autism,” Autism Speaks co-founders Bob and Suzanne Wright outline the stunning developments of the past decade. They note the milestones and achievements that Autism Speaks and organizations like it have notched or made possible:
- Autism’s prevalence has spiked, thanks in part to better understanding and improved diagnostics—this means more individuals now know to pursue the treatments and therapies they need
- Direct screening techniques have greatly improved our ability to detect autism
- The age of “reliable diagnosis” has dropped significantly, down to 2
- The benefits of behavioral therapy are clearer than ever
- Better understanding of autism-related sleep disorders and GI symptoms has greatly improved quality of life for thousands of children and adults living with ASD
- The connection between autism and epilepsy has been established and clarified
- Awareness of ASD children’s susceptibility to bullying has increased
- The importance of meaningful, age- and ability-appropriate economic activity for children and young adults with ASD is clearer than ever
- And much more
That sounds like a tremendous amount of progress. And it is. But there’s so much we still don’t know.
For instance, we’re just beginning to understand autism’s genetic basis, and what we’ve learned so far is straining the leading edge of our capabilities. In the years to come, talented researchers and clinicians will continue to worry away at this promising lead in the hopes of uncovering new diagnostic techniques and treatments that can further improve our understanding of ASD—and the lives of those who live with it.
We’re also just getting our heads around the environmental causes of autism. We’ve done much to separate beneficial fact from harmful fiction, but we’re still fighting hard against misinformation and myth. Going forward, more research is needed into autism’s environmental component and the potential for remediation before the condition is diagnosed.
What will the next decade of autism research and treatment bring? No one knows, exactly. But if the past decade is any indication, there’s ample reason for optimism.
-Thank you Julie for the Guest Post!