More than one ball in the air  pg. 2

“Ultimately we want a biologic cure and prevention for this disorder, and that’s going to happen,” says Dr. Nancy J. Minshew, director of a Collaborative Program of Excellence in Autism at the University of Pittsburgh. That cure may be several decades off, Minshew acknowledges, but research findings along the way are improving early diagnosis and treatment options, giving children with autism spectrum disorders the best chance for a typical life.

Exploding a myth

Morgan Vice (center), shown here with her mother, Tammy Vice (left), at a summer camp for children with autism sponsored by Vanderbilt University.  Morgan's 15-year-old sister Allicson Vice (right) was a junior counselor at the camp, which helps children with autism learn and practice social skills.
Photo by Dean Dixon
In 1943, pioneering child psychiatrist Dr. Leo Kanner of Johns Hopkins University published the first description of a syndrome of “autistic disturbances.” He presented case studies of 11 children who shared social remoteness, obsessive and repetitive behaviors, and language disturbances. But autism remained poorly defined for decades, grouped with childhood schizophrenia in the first two editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I, 1952 and DSM-II, 1968).

The 1950s and 60s saw the rise of theories that parents caused autism by being too “cold” and failing to psychologically bond with their children. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the tide began to turn, with prominent research groups formulating diagnostic criteria for autism and speculating that it had biological underpinnings.

Then came hard proof.

Dr. Susan Folstein had just completed her residency in psychiatry when she joined Dr. Michael Rutter’s group at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. She wanted research experience and took on a project to study autism in twins. Crisscrossing the English countryside, Folstein examined and interviewed as many twins as she and Rutter could find, one or both of whom had autism. They found that identical twins were much more likely to both be affected than were fraternal twins—evidence that autism had genetic roots.

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