The final discussion of the semester was on a topic that I care a lot about: autism. This past summer, I worked for my school districts out of school time child care program as a one on one teacher for special needs students. The girl that I worked most closely with was diagnosed with developmental delays but I also had a great deal of contact with a child diagnosed with autism. I loved working with these kids and this experience reinforced my desire to be a teacher.
Our paper this week focused mostly on the causes of autism, specifically on a possibly genetic link and environmental factors such as mercury and other xenobiotics. (Xenobiotics are anything in the body that is not supposed to be there. This includes vitamins and minerals that are normally found in the body but may be in larger than normal qualities.) The problem with discussing the causes of autism is that there is not a common accepted cause.
You may be wondering, what is autism? Autism is a spectrum type disorder meaning it does not appear the same in each person. Diagnosis usually occurs by age three after parents seek help for children not meeting developmental milestones. Diagnosis is not done through a blood test but rather through interviews and observations with a psychologist. Diagnosis can be a very long process as it is hard to say that a child definitely had autism with just one visit. Autistic children may exhibit problems with social interaction such as making eye contact and general communication. They also have problems with pretend play and often prefer to spend time alone rather than interacting with other children. Children with autism also have many behavioral problems such as tantrums and aggression towards themselves or others. They often have very short attention span, very narrow interests and tend to get stuck on a specific topic or task. As you can imagine, having a child with autism can be very difficult to deal with. [
After learning many different hypothesis for various causes of autism and having the experience working with children in a school setting, it got me thinking. Is it more valuable to do research into what causes autism or into how we can treat it?
This is a difficult question for me to answer. On one hand, researching the cause of autism and understanding exactly what is going on in the brain of an autistic patient might help understanding how to treat it. On the other, I have first-hand experience working with autistic children and can honestly say it is difficult. Currently there are no medications available for treating autism as a whole. Rather many autistics take medication to manage the symptoms of the disorder such as irritability and anxiety. Problem is, many of the medications available to treat symptoms of autism are not approved for children. Most treatment for autism is behavioral management and therapy, which is teaching the child how to act and react appropriately. Depending on where on the spectrum of autism the child falls however, behavioral therapy can be very difficult.
So to answer my question I am not sure which is more important. It is possible, and even likely, that both the cause and the solution will come from the same research but for now, as much support as possible needs to be given to families, schools and children to give autistic kids hope for the future.