April is National Autism Awareness Month, which was first celebrated in the early 1970s. It presents a special opportunity to educate people about autism and those issues that are most important to the autism community. Despite growing awareness, autism remains a mystery to some. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are general terms that refer to a group of disorders that are caused by differences in brain development. Individuals with ASDs can have trouble with verbal and nonverbal communication, social interactions, and behavioral issues. The spectrum includes Asperger syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), childhood disintegrative disorder, Rett syndrome, and autistic disorder.

Recent data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that ASDs affect 1 in 88 children in the U.S., which is a significant increase from the 1 in 150 prevalence reported in 2000. Some suggest that this change is due to increases in risk factors for autism, while others believe it’s a result of raised awareness and improved diagnostic methods. Regardless of the reason, this increase in prevalence is significant. Furthermore, ASDs have been seen in individuals of all racial and ethnic groups, stressing the importance of continued worldwide efforts to increase awareness about autism.

There are several causes of or risk factors for autism, and genetics are thought to play a significant role in the development of ASDs. While there is not a single gene that is known to cause autism, ASDs are seen more often than expected in individuals with several genetic syndromes, including Fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, DiGeorge syndrome, and untreated phenylketonuria (PKU). Outside of known genetic syndrome, research indicates that there are also genetic factors that can predispose individuals to develop an ASD; these genetic factors are thought to be ‘triggered’ by environmental factors, which can include anything from heavy metals such as mercury to pesticides to pharmaceutical exposure in the womb. Recent studies also suggest that both maternal and paternal age can play a role in a child’s risk of developing an ASD. Despite these advances, more research about autism is needed to further understand its causes and develop the best interventions and treatments.

To learn more about autism and how you can get involved in the awareness effort, please visit the websites listed below. Also, search online to find autism awareness events in your area.

National Autism Association (@nationalautism)

The Autism Society (@autismsociety)

Autism Speaks (@autismspeaks)