Autism, autism spectrum disorders and Asperger’syndrome describe the range of complex neurological disorders the symptoms of which are manifest early in life. The core symptoms relate to impaired social interactions for example diminished eye contact, communication abnormalities such as gibberish and parroting back, delayed or absent imaginative play development and often behavioural rigidity (tantrums in response to change). Sensory difficulties (touch, loud noise) are also often present. The present state of knowledge does not allow us to know what may cause autism, although certain conditions (Fragile X, Tuberous sclerosis) are associated with the diagnosis. Three quarters of children with autism also have developmental delay.
Autism is usually diagnosed in the preschool period, whilst Asperger’s Syndrome is more commonly diagnosed in the primary school years. The diagnosis of autism is generally more reliable after the age of three, although there are many Rating Scales/Assessment Instruments to assist with diagnosis. Frequently parents have been reassured earlier – “he’ll grow out of it, boys are slower than girls”.
Assessment requires an experienced clinician conducting a detailed examination, preferably with input from speech pathology, occupational therapy and psychology. The public sector offers the “multidisciplinary team” which is a good model, but may have a long waiting time.
If, as a parent, you have significant concerns with the areas outlined above and your concerns are shared by the kindergarden teacher or maternity chid health nurse, consult your GP. Melbourne is well supplied with paediatricians, psychologists, and child psychiatrists who are highly experienced in this area. The Royal Children’s Hospital website is a good place to start. The preceding paragraph was written by Dr Michael Welham DPM, Paediatric and Adolescent Psychiatrist.
There is also a large body of literature which implicates perinatal infection and the immune system as having a possible role in the causation of autism spectrum disorders. A literature review is presented below to illustrate this:
- The immune response in autism: a new frontier for autism research. Journal of Leukocyte Biology. 2006; 80 (1): 1-15. Ashwood P, Wills S & Van de Water J.
- Maternal infection requiring hospitalization during pregnancy and autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2010; 40 (12): 1423-30. Atladóttir H, Thorsen P, Østergaard L, et al.
- Maternal Infection and the Offspring Brain. The Journal of Neuroscience. 2006; 26 (30): 7777–78. Depino A.
- Prenatal viral infection leads to pyramidal cell atrophy and macrocephaly in adulthood: implications for genesis of autism and schizophrenia. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology. 2002; 22 (1): 25-33. Fatemi S, Earle J, Kanodia R et al.
- Prenatal viral infection in mouse: an animal model of schizophrenia. In: Clelland J (ed.). Genomics, Proteomics, and the Nervous System, Vol. 2. New York: Springer; 2011; 113-36.
- Effects of maternal immune activation on gene expression patterns in the fetal brain. Translational Psychiatry. 2012; (2): 1-8. Garbett K, Hsiao E, Kalman S, Patterson P, & Mirnics K.
- Cytokine dysregulation in autism spectrum disorders (ASD): Possible role of the environment. Neurotoxicology and Teratology. Goines P & Ashwood P.
- Infectious Behaviour: brain-immune connections in autism, schizophrenia and depression. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2012; 201: 164 – 65. Johansson C.
- Brief report: immune factors in autism: a critical review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2002; 32 (4): 337-45. Krause I, He X, Gershwin M & Shoenfeld Y.
- What causes autism? Exploring the environmental contribution. Current Opinion in Pediatrics. 2010; 22: 219–225. Landrigan P.
- Autistic disorder and viral infections. Journal of Neurovirology. 2005; 11: 1-10. Libbey J, Sweeten T, McMahon W & Fujinami R.
- Maternal infection and fever during late gestation are associated with altered synaptic transmission in the hippocampus of juvenile offspring rats. American Journal of Physiology- Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. 2008; 295 (5): 1563-71. Lowe G, Luheshi G & Williams S.
- The UCLA-University of Utah epidemiologic survey of autism: recurrent infections. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 1993; 2 (2): 79-90. Mason-Brothers A, Ritvo E, Freeman B et al.
- The neurodevelopmental impact of prenatal infections at different times of pregnancy: the earlier the worse? Neuroscientist. 2007; 13 (3): 241-256. Meyer U, Yee B & Feldon J.
- Schizophrenia and autism: both shared and disorder-specific pathogenesis via perinatal inflammation? Pediatric Research. 2011; 69 (5): 26R-33R. Meyer U, Feldon J, & Dammann O.
- Chronic mycoplasmal infections in gulf war veterans’ children and autism patients. Medical Veritas. 2005; 2 (1): 383-87. Nicolson G, Berns P, Gan R & Haier J.
- Differences between the gut microflora of children with autistic spectrum disorders and that of healthy children. Journal of Medical Microbiology. 2005; 54: 987-91. Parracho H, Bingham M, Gibson G & McCartney A.
- Maternal infection: window on neuroimmune interactions in fetal brain development and mental illness. Current Opinion in Neurobiology. 2002; 12 (1): 115-18. Patterson P.
- Maternal immune activation, cytokines and autism. In: Zimmerman A (ed.). Autism: Current Theories and Evidence. New Jersey: Humana Press; 2008; 289-307. Patterson P, Xu W, Smith S & Devarman B.
- Immune involvement in schizophrenia and autism: etiology, pathology and animal models. Behavioural Brain Research . 2009; 204 (2): 313-21. Patterson P.
- Maternal infection and immune involvement in autism. Trends in Mollecular Medicine. 2011; 17 (7): 389-94. Patterson P.
- Infection in the first 2 years of life and autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics. 2007; 119 (1): e61-e70. Rosen N, Yoshida C & Croen L.
- Activation of the maternal immune system as a risk factor for neuropsychiatric disorders. In: Zimmerman A & Connors S (eds.). Maternal Influences on Fetal Neurodevelopment. New York: Springer; 2010; 97-115. Smith S, Hsiao E & Patterson P.
- Association between prenatal exposure to bacterial infection and risk of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Bulletin. 2009; 35 (3): 631-37. Sørensen H, Mortensen E, Reinisch J & Mednick S.
- Antibodies to neuron-specific antigens in children with autism: possible cross-reaction with encephalitogenic proteins from milk, Chlamydia pneumoniae and Streptococcus group A. Journal of Neuroimmunology. 2002; 129 (1-2): 168-77. Vojdani A, Campbell A, Anyanwu E, Kashanian A, Bock K & Vojdani E.
- Infections, toxic chemicals and dietary peptides binding to lymphocyte receptors and tissue enzymes are major instigators of autoimmunity in autism. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology. 2003; 16 (3): 189-99. Vojdani A, Pangborn J, Vojdani E & Cooper E.
- The beginnings of mental illness. Autism, schizophrenia and other disorders may have roots in life’s earliest stages. American Psychological Association. 2012; 43 (2) 36. Weir, K.
- Immune Dysfunction in Autism Spectrum Disorder. In: Valsamma E (ed.). Autism – A Neurodevelopmental Journey from Genes to Behaviour. InTech 2011; Available from: http://www.intechopen.com/books/autism-a-neurodevelopmental-journey-from-genes-to-behaviour/immune-dysfunction-in-autism-spectrum-disorder Westover J, Sweeten T, Benson M, Bray-Ward P & Torres A.
- Is Maternal Influenza or Fever During Pregnancy Associated with Autism or Developmental Delays? Results from the CHARGE (Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and Environment) Study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 10.1007/s10803-012-1540-x Zerbo O, Iosif A, Walker C, Ozonoff S, Hansen R & Hertz-Picciotto I.
If a patient has had a child diagnosed with autism or autism spectrum disorder, appropriate investigations in the mother should be undertaken before embarking on a further pregnancy.