Friday, April 25, 2008

STAR Conference Presentation on Current Research on Autism Spectrum Disorders

My final comments on the STAR parent conference on Autism 2008, which I’ve discussed in the previous two posts, is about the presentation on current research findings on autism, presented by Judith Grether, PhD. Dr Grether is a Perinatal Epidemiologist with the California Department of Health Services in Richmond, California, a part of Centers for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Research and Epidemiology (CADDRE).

The presentation began with a summary of “what we think we know”, as Dr. Grether termed it, such as a prevalence rate of about 1 in 160, the fact that it is much more common in males, and that 30% to 60% of the cases include seizures and 20% to 30% of the cases involved regression. Dr. Grether defined Autistic Spectrum Disorders as a process that “typically starts during gestation.”

The presentation then moved to a discussion of vaccines and autism. This was fascinating, because she discussed theories involving antigen concentration as well as Thimerosal use. I know this topic can be very controversial, so I’m not going to attempt an amateur replication of Dr. Grether’s statements. If this is a topic of interest to you, I urge you to go to the CADDRE website and sign up for the autism newsletter.

The presentation moved to other areas that are being studied, including immune issues, maternal factors including parental age, and environmental issues such as toxins and pesticides. I found the parental age issues most interesting, especially the studies that attempt to tease out the cause and effect of the issue. Dr. Grether stated that “the risk of ASD is increased with increasing age of mothers and, independently, with increasing age of fathers.” She then discussed at length the studies that have been performed in an attempt to determine what this correlation really means as  far as what precise factors are actually causing this increased risk. As is typical in autism research, there are many questions and few definite answers. Dr. Grether concluded the presentation with a discussion of current studies that are being performed and how parents can help with research.

My opinion about this presentation is heavily influenced by my own engineering background. Prior to becoming a therapist, I was an engineer and I spent many years doing research and experiments. My area of study was Materials Engineering and semiconductors, very different than epidemiology and autism. However, I learned two things as an engineer that I think are applicable.

First, it’s very rare to find absolutes in science: “always”, “never”, “the best”, “we know for sure”. I appreciate that this presentation was so carefully presented. We got to hear of studies that aren’t complete, facts that aren’t fully understood and theories that are only being considered. Dr. Grether took care to state when there were uncertainties, yet at the same time presented research that is still in progress.

Second, I’ve found that the best science is performed when the researchers go into the experiment being open minded about what the data will show. This seems to be a real strength for Dr. Grether and was one of the factors that made this presentation so interesting.