Autism encompasses a group of complex disorders involving brain development. Autism symptoms appear very early in childhood and include difficulties in social communication as well as restricted patterns of behavior and interests. Once considered rare, current estimates indicate that autism affects about 1 in 59 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 people and their families. There is an urgent need for new and improved methods of diagnosis, treatments, services, and support 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. Both genetic and environmental factors contribute to autism, and in some cases a person’s genetic makeup may increase susceptibility to environmental factors.
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. Identifying 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.
NIEHS grantees have made important discoveries about the role of air pollution, prenatal conditions, and inflammation in increasing autism risk. They also showed that mothers who took folic acid during the first month of pregnancy had a lower risk of having a child with autism. A wide variety of environmental exposures are being investigated--diet and nutrition, pesticides, metals, medications, and medical procedures. Many of the NIEHS research efforts address priorities identified in the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee's Strategic Plan for Autism Research.
Three key projects funded by NIEHS are:
- CHARGE – The goal of the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment study is to identify causes and contributing factors for childhood autism. Launched in 2003, this study is enrolling children diagnosed with autism and two comparison groups, children with developmental delay and children with typical development. Information on environmental exposures, medical, lifestyle, socio-demographic, and behavior are being collected from 1,800 children and their families.
- MARBLES and EARLI – The Markers of Autism Risk in Babies-Learning Early Signs and the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation studies are following women at high risk of giving birth to a child with autism. Women are enrolled during early pregnancy and their children followed to age three. By collecting data from mothers and their babies throughout critical periods, these studies can better identify and measure environmental exposures that may impact the very early stages of brain development.
Cindy Lawler, Ph.D.
Branch Chief, Genes, Environment, and Health
P.O. Box 12233Mail Drop K3-15Durham, N.C. 27709
Additional Program Contacts