Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition surrounded by a lot of misinformation, rumours and fear.
Characterized by social and communication difficulties and often including compulsive repetitive behaviours, autism can make daily functioning extremely difficult.
The condition is now understood to include a wide spectrum with symptoms ranging from quite mild to debilitating.
Much of the fear surrounding autism is based on its apparent increase in prevalence lately and our lack of understanding about what causes the disorder.
Recent data indicates that autism affects roughly one in every 68 children, which is an increase of 30 per cent from estimates of one in 88 children just two years ago.
Because it often becomes noticeable in the toddler years at around the same age that children receive vaccines, there was fear by many parents that perhaps the vaccines caused the disorder.
Many studies have examined this potential link and all have shown the two are not linked.
A recent study has now provided some direct evidence that autism begins during brain development before birth.
Researchers at the University of California examined genes in post-mortem brain tissue of children with and without autism.
They discovered patches of disruption in the development of cortical layers in the brains of children with autism.
The brain develops six cortical layers at an early stage and researchers discovered disruption in both the frontal and temporal cortex—areas involved with communication, social cues and language.
In this study, the majority of children with autism showed disrupted development in the cortical layers and researchers found it particularly surprising to see the similarity across all patients in spite of the diversity of symptoms experienced and the genetic complexity of the condition.
Since the cortical defects discovered in this study are patchy rather than uniform in nature, researchers believe this may explain why early and ongoing treatment can be so helpful to children with this condition.
It may sometimes be possible for the brain to rewire connections and bypass some of the deficits.
More research will be necessary to further explore this discovery and learn more about the biology behind autism.
These findings could lead to new interventions as well as earlier screening and a more optimistic outlook for children and families impacted by this condition.
Paul Latimer is a psychiatrist and president of Okanagan Clinical Trials.