National expert on autism says research has come a long way, still has far to go

National expert on autism says research has come a long way, still has far to go

(Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — A prominent psychiatrist and researcher on autism spectrum disorder told a Utah audience that he knows one thing for sure: "Vaccines do not cause autism."

Dr. Eric Fombonne, of Oregon Health Sciences University, is discouraged by recent news that Robert Kennedy Jr. may have been asked by President-elect Donald Trump to lead a national study on vaccine safety.

Fombonne said he hopes it isn't true — and that the public retains its trust in science.

"Vaccines work," he said. "Any side effects are small, and they are a small price to pay for reduced morbidity and death."

Fombonne said decades of evidence have shown there is no relation between autism and vaccinations, which were purported to contain mercury. Since 2001, he said, vaccinations given to children in the United States do not contain any of the potentially harmful substances, yet the autism rates have not gone down.

Autism spectrum disorder, for which no absolute test exists to confirm a diagnosis, is exhibited through widely varying communicative and social behaviors.

"These children do not develop normally in terms of their ability to communicate … and their social interactions are marked by an absence of reciprocity," Fombonne said Thursday at a discussion on autism at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

He said the disorder develops gradually in young children and usually isn't detectable before 18 months of age.

Clinical presentation and severity of the disorder, Fombonne said, is different in every child.

"No two children with autism look alike," he said, adding that such diversity creates challenges in study and diagnosis, as does varying detection rates among states and even countries throughout the world.

The prevalence of autism spectrum disorder in Utah is estimated to be approximately 1.7 percent of the population, or 1 in 58 8-year-olds, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention biennial surveillance.

Utah's rate is higher than the national average, but it's likely because of a higher level of collaboration across health, education and academic sectors in the state.

Dr. Eric Fombonne, psychologist and leading epidemiologist on autism spectrum disorder, visits the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)
Dr. Eric Fombonne, psychologist and leading epidemiologist on autism spectrum disorder, visits the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

Natalie Gochnour, director at the institute, said Utah has a great need for increased understanding of autism, including public policy that can assist families in dealing with the disorder.

"Many Utah families look to the university for help," Gochnour said.

And research, including much done locally, has come a long way, according to Amanda Bakian, assistant professor of psychology at the U. and director of the Utah Registry of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Bakian said Utah is one of just a handful of states where autism is a reportable health condition, so more cases are tracked in the state than many other places, resulting in greater awareness and also opportunity to intervene with effective treatment.

"They don't work for everyone, however," she said, illustrating autism as a complex disorder that deserves increased attention.

The more information that becomes available helps to empower individuals and inform family planning, Bakian said.

"We want to improve daily living for that group … providing tools and options that are helpful to families," she said.

Scientific research has shown that autism most likely carries a genetic component, as mutations are passed on from parents and across generations. While prediction is not yet possible, families are getting more information, Fombonne said.

One area that is lacking, he said, is assistance provided for people with autism during and throughout teenage and adult transitions, when their needs likely increase. Society, Fombonne said, needs to do a better job with that.

"They are wonderful people. They can do many things. They just need to be shown a path to be able to contribute," he said.

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