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EARLI Signs of Autism

Photograph by Thomas Arledge

EARLI Signs of Autism

In the search for the causes of autism, most research has focused on genetics and the environment—separately.

Now, in one of the largest studies of its kind, Bloomberg School scientists are investigating the interplay of biological and environmental components as risk factors for autism, from the earliest stages of child development through the first three years of life.

The School, in partnership with the Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Maryland Department of Education, is one of four field sites in the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI). The study, which began in June and is an NIH Autism Centers of Excellence project, will follow a cohort of up to 1,200 pregnant women who already have one autistic child, which puts a sibling at an elevated risk for autism.

“One emerging theme [in autism] is that if there is an environmental aspect or a gene/environment interaction, those environmental factors that may play a role are likely to happen in utero,” says M. Daniele Fallin, PhD, co-principal investigator of the EARLI study and associate professor of Epidemiology.

The mothers in the study will provide biological samples throughout the project, keep a daily diary on behavior and diet throughout their pregnancy and complete detailed questionnaires. Previous autism research has produced “good evidence” that there is a genetic component to the illness, says Fallin (right). This study seeks to advance understanding of the possible environmental component.

“Unless you can put together both genetic and environmental data on the same people and you can do it over time, it’s going to be very difficult to tease apart” the connections to autism, says Fallin. “That’s never been done before, and that’s why people are very excited about it.”

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  • Craig Kendall

    San Diego 07/26/2011 01:49:39 AM

    As an author of several books on autism and Asperger's syndrome, one thing I can tell you is that parents agonize over why their child has autism. My son, who just turned 17, has high functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome. Was it a vaccination? Was it the water? Was it genetics? Am I to blame? My wife and I have wracked our brains over this...but it is a stupid place to waste energy. After all, what is done is done. In writing one of my books, I did extensive interviews with parents. And for those with an autistic child, there were so many siblings and close relatives who also had autism. The hereditary link seems obvious. But can it be environmental too? Not only will your research help identify the environmental issues as a potential causal factor in autism, but a side benefit is to relieve some of the guilt that a lot of parents feel when they have a child on the spectrum. The parents who they feel they are in some way to blame should read the article, "Conquer any Feelings of Guilt You May Have" at Autism is challenging enough without beating yourself up over it.

  • Steve

    San Diego 07/27/2011 12:26:19 AM

    Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often can be reliably detected by age 3. In some cases even earlier than that. Recent studies suggest that kids may eventually be accurately diagnosed by the age of 1 year or even younger. One thing for certain is that if your child shows any of the early warning signs of autism then they should be evaluated by a professional who specializes in autism disorders. Visit my site to learn more about autism signs and symptoms

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