To mark World Autism Awareness Day on 2nd April, we shine the spotlight on a disorder that is affecting an ever-growing number of people.
What is Autism?
Defining autism is not simple, and indeed the scientific community still has a way to go to understand this complex disorder. Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a term that encompasses a range of symptoms, from mild to severe. These symptoms fit into two main categories:
- Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction: This includes reduced or lack of shared interests or emotions; issues with non-verbal communication, eye-contact and body-language; problems understanding and maintaining relationships; lack of facial expression.
- Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities: This includes repetitive motor movements or phrases; insistence on sameness; inflexible adherence to routines; rigid thinking patterns; unusual reactions to sensory aspects of the environment (indifference to pain, extreme reactions to certain sounds or smells, fascination with lights).
Needless to say, autism affects the quality of life of those with the condition, as well as their families and caregivers. However, with the right support and opportunities, individuals with autism can live a full life and contribute to society like everyone else.
WISH: Addressing ASD Worldwide
According to WISH, there are over 52 million cases of ASD worldwide, a figure which has dramatically increased in the last few decades. And the cost is also ever-growing. In the US alone, the economic impact of ASD is expected to reach $461 billion by 2025. Clearly this disorder poses a global challenge: how can we support and care for individuals with ASD? WISH proposes to focus on five key areas, namely:
- Increase awareness of ASD and promote the importance of early detection, which allows children to get help as early as possible;
- Provide evidence-based therapies to children and training to parents, teachers and clinicians;
- Provide individuals with ASD access to public education and ensure they are included in the education system;
- Ensure individuals with ASD and their families receive appropriate support and information to care for their family members; and
- Focus on research to better understand the challenges faced in treating ASD.
To reach these goals, WISH proposes 3 recommendations:
- Establishing an interagency coordinating commission to address ASD at a national level. This commission would provide guidance to governments on issues relating to ASD and the systems to put in place to tackle the challenges faced.
- Establishing national or regional training centers which would provide and share cutting edge research on ASD. These centers would also offer direct services and support to people with ASD, as well as work with schools and workplaces to provide programs and training.
- Establishing a global partnership that involves member governments as well as both public and private sectors. This partnership would help coordinate a worldwide response to ASD, including establishing a global minimum standard of service to ensure everyone with ASD is treated fairly and decently.
We Ask the Experts: Qatar Biomedical Research Institute
We spoke with Dr. Fouad Al Shaban, MD, MSc, PhD, Senior Scientist at Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI), to find out more about the causes of ASD, new diagnosis methods, and what is being done to deal with discrimination against people with autism.
Q: What are some of the risk factors involved in ASD?
Recent studies have shown some correlation between frequent exposure to ultra sounds during the first trimester of pregnancy and increased risk of having a baby with autism. Other risk factors include air pollution, exposure to certain chemicals like insecticides, and taking some medications during pregnancy, like for example Depakin, which is used to treat epilepsy.
Genes also play an important role in this disorder, however autism is very rarely inherited.
Q: What kind of research is Qatar Biomedical Research Institute currently involved in?
QBRI is currently working in collaboration with Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) on a research project to establish the prevalence of autism and the contributing risk factors. This is being funded by the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF). Our preliminary results show that there are around 7 in every 1000 children in Qatar affected by ASD, a prevalence rate of 0,6 percent.
Another project we are involved in, in collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic, is particularly interesting. Using bio-hypnosis, a new technology, we will be able to diagnose autism from as early as 6 months—this is incredibly useful as currently autism is difficult to diagnose in very young children. The device analyses the child’s response to certain stimuli and can diagnose, with an 80% accuracy rate, whether the child has autism, or whether there is a high risk of developing autism. We’re hoping to make this service available to everyone within the next few years.
Q: What can be done to prevent discrimination against people with ASD?
This depends very much on public awareness and understanding that people with autism can live and contribute to society just like everyone else, as long as they get the appropriate support. There are many examples of people with high functioning autism, for example Bill Gates, Einstein, Isaac Newton. Governments could also take measures to prevent discrimination through initiatives that improve education, safety and employment opportunities for individuals with autism.
With environmental factors like air pollution and our increasing reliance on chemicals, it is not surprising that cases of ASD are on the rise. It is important that we face up to this global crisis by ensuring adequate support is in place for individuals with autism and their families, as well as proper education and employment opportunities. Increasing public awareness will help to fight prejudice, and ensure people with autism have the right to a fulfilled, decent, happy life.