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Autism News Round-Up: Tracking Autism and Identifying At-Risk Mothers

This week two different research teams made headway in their efforts to track the lives of children with autism in addition to developing a new questionnaire to help adults with autism. In addition, a new study has identified young mothers as being at a higher risk for having a child with autism.

First up, the National Institute of Health is renewing a previously defunct study that sought to pinpoint the environmental risk factors for autism and other childhood disorders. This rebooted study, which is being referred to by the name of ECHO, is taking the place of the National Children’s Study (NCS), which was initiated in 2000. At the time, researchers called it the largest ever long-term study of pregnant women and their children in the U.S.

The original data pool for NCS was comprised of 100,000 children, whom researchers would follow from birth to age twenty-one, seeking to draw a correlation between such environmental factors as air pollution and psychological stress before and after birth and conditions like autism that developed later after birth. But the project soon became too much to handle and thus Echo’s mission is much more tenable. It aims to build upon ongoing studies with the long-term goal of finding the correlations that researchers sought to with NCS. Congress has allotted $165 million for the project.

Moving from children to adults, researchers have developed a new test that will enable them to keep track of repetitive and restricted behaviors in adults with autism. Currently, most tests that are designed to track repetitive behaviors are designed for children, with questions meant for caregivers. One such questions asks: “Does your child have any special objects he/she likes to carry around?” The objects in this case are meant to be ones that a child would usually carry, like a blanket or a toy.

However, as this new study found, researchers were able to rephrase existing questionnaires so that adults with autism could answer the questions themselves. For example, the above question is now rewritten as “Do you have any special objects you like to carry around?” The researchers gave the questionnaire to 29 adults with autism and found that adults with autism have greatly more repetitive behavior than their neurotypical counterparts do. Researchers have now made the questionnaire available online so that they can continue to collect date and better understand how these behaviors evolve over the course of one’s life.

Finally, a recent study published in Molecular Psychiatry has found that, alongside older women and men, teenage girls and parents whose age differs by a decade are at a higher risk of having a child with autism. The study looked at several nations and more than five million children.

However, researchers are cautioning young parents against jumping to conclusions as they are still unable to rule out other factors associated with parental age that might also explain the results. Either way, this new study is an invaluable piece of information that all parents should be aware of.