Birth Defects Prevention Month: Autism

Girls with autism spectrum disorders, like Asperger's syndrome, often go undiagnosed.

Girls with autism spectrum disorders, like Asperger's syndrome, often go undiagnosed.

Autism is a complex developmental disability and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills, according to the Autism Society of America.

Children with autism are typically diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 3 years old, but in some cases, children as young as 18 months can develop signs of the developmental disability. Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls, according to the National Autism Association.

Researchers have not determined what causes autism. Sherry Sancibrian, M.S., CCC-SLP, professor and director of the Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences program, said determining whether autism is considered a birth defect is not a clear yes or no answer.

“Current research suggests that there is a strong genetic component, in which case autism is something you’re born with,” Sancibrian said, “but the jury is still out about some possible environmental causes, so I know there are some folks who would not consider autism a birth defect.”

The cause of autism remains unknown as well. There are rumors that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative once used in several vaccines could contribute to autism spectrum disordersRichard Lampe, M.D., chair of the Department of Pediatrics, does not believe this to be true and encourages parents to have their children immunized.

“Valid scientific studies do not support a link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism,” Lampe said. “It is important to pursue the reasons for autism spectrum disorder, its early detection and treatment. We should not leave our infants and children vulnerable to deadly diseases that vaccines prevent.”

There is no cure for autism, but local organizations like the South Plains Autism Network (SPAN) and the Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research are helping West Texas families and Texas Tech students overcome the challenges of living with the disorder.

SPAN is a support group of parents, caregivers, physicians, therapists and teachers who have autism and/or work with children who have autism. The group meets each month during the school year.

At the Burkhart Center, Texas Tech students who have autism may attend educational workshops, take advantage of support services, receive job coaching and participate in social groups and life-skills programs.

Find more autism resources.

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