Cindy Lawler, Ph.D. (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/dert/geh/lawler/index.cfm)
Autism encompasses a wide spectrum of disorders that appear very early in childhood and share core behavioral symptoms—difficulties in social communication and restricted patterns of behavior and interests. Once considered rare, current estimates indicate that autism affects nearly one in 100 children in the United States. Some individuals diagnosed with autism are mildly affected while others are more severely impaired. Medical conditions such as epilepsy, sleep disturbances, and gastrointestinal problems often occur together with autism. The core symptoms of autism, together with co-occurring conditions, create enormous challenges for affected individuals, families and society. There is an urgent need for new and improved methods of diagnosis, treatments, services and supports across the lifespan.
With autism emerging as a national health priority, increased funding and greater coordination among federal agencies has spurred progress in many areas. Researchers now recognize that autism is not one but many conditions, with many different causes. Both genetic and environmental factors are thought to contribute to autism, but the mix of genes and environment, and the relative importance, is likely to differ from one person to another.
What NIEHS is doing
NIEHS supports autism research aimed at understanding how environmental exposures early in life may combine with genetic susceptibility to alter brain development to create the core symptoms of autism. A wide variety of environmental exposures are being investigated--diet and nutrition, pesticides, metals, medications and medical procedures. The identification of environmental factors that increase a child’s risk for developing autism is essential because public health prevention efforts can then focus on reducing or removing exposure to those environmental factors. Many of the NIEHS research efforts address priorities identified in the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee’s Strategic Plan for Autism Research.