Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disorder that constitutes both social communication deficits and restricted interests and behaviors (Hollander et al., 2011). Social communication deficits may appear in the form of abnormal eye contact, lack of facial expressions, failure to share their experiences with others or difficulties initiating, sustaining and understanding relationships. A child presenting restricted interests and behaviors may insist on wearing the same superhero costume everyday, have a highly restricted, fixated interest in insects, demonstrate repetitive hand flapping or be highly sensitive to certain senses such as florescent lighting.
The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) combined the diagnoses of autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (not otherwise specified) under the umbrella diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. ASD is heterogeneous in its presentation of core deficits, intellectual disability, accompaniment of epilepsy, and in its timing of onset of symptoms. As its name suggests, individuals with ASD fall on a spectrum from having a serious intellectual disability, severe sensitivity to sensory stimuli, and a non-verbal profile to being highly cognitively functional with strong verbal skills and circumscribed interests. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 1 in 68 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism, with boys being almost five times more likely to develop the disorder.
Scientists and researchers have come a long way in discovering new risk factors, early childhood screening tools, and characteristics of ASD, yet the etiology of the disorder is still largely unknown. In the meantime, it is crucial that we increase our research funding to areas of autism research that need it the most.
According to the 2010 Autism Spectrum Disorder Research Portfolio Analysis Report conducted by the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee [IACC](2012), there was a fund of over 400 million dollars designated to seven areas of ASD research, with only 2% of the money utilized for research related to autism lifespan issues. Lifespan issues can include adult interventions and service needs, transition and vocational programs, social skills training, and other services related to improving the quality of life of individuals with ASD as they enter into adulthood (IACC, 2012). Results from a UK study reported that parents of autistic children felt that once their child was given an autism diagnosis, they were given little to no assistance for how to move forward (Pellicano, Dinsmore & Charman, 2014).
Overall, it appears that it is widely agreed upon by the autism community that the main concern of future autism research should be to improve the day-to-day lives and future of those currently affected by the disorder.
In recent years, a new therapeutic method has emerged that has shown evidence for helping to improve certain traits associated with ASD that would help young adults with this transition. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) Therapy is a non-invasive procedure that uses electromagnetic pulses to stimulate neurons in the brain. Studies indicate that TMS may improve certain aspects of daily functioning that are reported as difficult for those diagnosed with ASD. These include being better able to read social cues and complete cognitive tasks. TMS Therapy also provides the added benefit of demonstrating durability over time, which would support those with ASD throughout their future endeavors. While TMS Therapy for ASD is still in the very early stages of research, it will be an interesting avenue to explore, as it does not act as a medication which can inhibit the wonderful, unique aspects of those with ASD but may improve their social functioning enough to better show them to the world.
Hollander, E., Kolevzon, A., & Coyle, J. T. (Eds.). (2011). Textbook of autism spectrum disorders. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee. (2012). 2010 IACC autism spectrum disorder research portfolio analysis report. Retrieved from http://iacc.hhs.gov/portfolio-analysis/2010/index.shtml#types-asd-research-funded
Pellicano, E., Dinsmore, A., & Charman, T. (2014). What should autism research focus upon? Community views and priorities from the United Kingdom. Autism, 18(7), 756-770.