Can Genetic Testing Help Shed Light on the Autism Epidemic?

A little boy standing by a window in contemplation. (© altanaka/Fotolia)

(© altanaka/Fotolia)


Autism cases are still on the rise, and scientists don't know why. In April, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that rates of autism had increased once again, now at an estimated 1 in 59 children up from 1 in 68 just two years ago. Rates have been climbing steadily since 2007 when the CDC initially estimated that 1 in 150 children were on the autism spectrum.

Some clinicians are concerned that the creeping expansion of autism is causing the diagnosis to lose its meaning.

The standard explanation for this increase has been the expansion of the definition of autism to include milder forms like Asperger's, as well as a heightened awareness of the condition that has improved screening efforts. For example, the most recent jump is attributed to children in minority communities being diagnosed who might have previously gone under the radar. In addition, more federally funded resources are available to children with autism than other types of developmental disorders, which may prompt families or physicians to push harder for a diagnosis.

Some clinicians are concerned that the creeping expansion of autism is causing the diagnosis to lose its meaning. William Graf, a pediatric neurologist at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, says that when a nurse tells him that a new patient has a history of autism, the term is no longer a useful description. "Even though I know this topic extremely well, I cannot picture the child anymore," he says. "Use the words mild, moderate, or severe. Just give me a couple more clues, because when you say autism today, I have no idea what people are talking about anymore."

Genetic testing has emerged as one potential way to remedy the overly broad label by narrowing down a heterogeneous diagnosis to a specific genetic disorder. According to Suma Shankar, a medical geneticist at the University of California, Davis, up to 60 percent of autism cases could be attributed to underlying genetic causes. Common examples include Fragile X Syndrome or Rett Syndrome—neurodevelopmental disorders that are caused by mutations in individual genes and are behaviorally classified as autism.

With more than 500 different mutations associated with autism, very few additional diagnoses provide meaningful information.

Having a genetic diagnosis in addition to an autism diagnosis can help families in several ways, says Shankar. Knowing the genetic origin can alert families to other potential health problems that are linked to the mutation, such as heart defects or problems with the immune system. It may also help clinicians provide more targeted behavioral therapies and could one day lead to the development of drug treatments for underlying neurochemical abnormalities. "It will pave the way to begin to tease out treatments," Shankar says.

When a doctor diagnoses a child as having a specific genetic condition, the label of autism is still kept because it is more well-known and gives the child access to more state-funded resources. Children can thus be diagnosed with multiple conditions: autism spectrum disorder and their specific gene mutation. However, with more than 500 different mutations associated with autism, very few additional diagnoses provide meaningful information. What's more, the presence or absence of a mutation doesn't necessarily indicate whether the child is on the mild or severe end of the autism spectrum.

Because of this, Graf doubts that genetic classifications are really that useful. He tells the story of a boy with epilepsy and severe intellectual disabilities who was diagnosed with autism as a young child. Years later, Graf ordered genetic testing for the boy and discovered that he had a mutation in the gene SYNGAP1. However, this knowledge didn't change the boy's autism status. "That diagnosis [SYNGAP1] turns out to be very specific for him, but it will never be a household name. Biologically it's good to know, and now it's all over his chart. But on a societal level he still needs this catch-all label [of autism]," Graf says.

"It gives some information, but to what degree does that change treatment or prognosis?"

Jennifer Singh, a sociologist at Georgia Tech who wrote the book Multiple Autisms: Spectrums of Advocacy and Genomic Science, agrees. "I don't know that the knowledge gained from just having a gene that's linked to autism," is that beneficial, she says. "It gives some information, but to what degree does that change treatment or prognosis? Because at the end of the day you have to address the issues that are at hand, whatever they might be."

As more children are diagnosed with autism, knowledge of the underlying genetic mutation causing the condition could help families better understand the diagnosis and anticipate their child's developmental trajectory. However, for the vast majority, an additional label provides little clarity or consolation.

Instead of spending money on genetic screens, Singh thinks the resources would be better used on additional services for people who don't have access to behavioral, speech, or occupational therapy. "Things that are really going to matter for this child in their future," she says.

Dana Smith
Dana Smith is a freelance science writer specializing in brains and bodies. She has written for the Atlantic, the Guardian, NPR, Scientific American, Discover, and Fast Company, among others. In a previous life, she earned a PhD in Experimental Psychology from the University of Cambridge. You can find more of her writing at danagsmith.com.
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