More than one ball in the air

Paths to new treatments for autism

Editor’s Note:  This story was written in 2003. Morgan is now in middle school, and her sister Allison is in college, majoring in comprehensive special education.

Leigh MacMillan, Ph.D.
Published: November, 2003

Children with autism toss balls into the air during a summer camp conducted by the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) at Vanderbilt University.
Photo by Dean Dixon
Eighteen-month-old Morgan Vice scrambled up onto the table. Before her mother could get to her, she was airborne, shouting, “I can fly, I can fly.” Landing in a crumpled heap, she quavered, “I cannot fly.”

That was Morgan several years ago—vivacious, engaged, talkative. Then something went wrong.

“She just stopped looking at me,” her mother, Tammy Vice, recalls. “She started echoing back words instead of saying things on her own. It was like something was taking her away, and we didn’t have any idea what it was.”

More than a year and seven professionals later, that “something” got a name. “By then we already knew,” Vice says. Morgan had autism. Her official diagnosis is Asperger disorder, one of five developmental disorders that make up the “autistic spectrum.”

All children with an autism spectrum disorder share core deficits—abnormal social behavior, impaired communication, and restricted and repetitive behaviors—though the severity and constellation of symptoms vary dramatically. Intellectual function ranges from profound mental retardation to above average intelligence as measured on IQ tests. Some children, like Morgan, appear to develop typically for the first year or two and then stop, or regress. Others show signs of autism from early infancy.

This baffling variability in symptoms and their onset has added to the complexity of diagnosing, treating, and understanding autism. Today, 60 years after it was first described, autism is still a mysterious disorder. It’s clear that brain development goes awry, but why and how exactly are open questions. There are currently no biological markers—genes or blood proteins—that can be used to diagnose the disorder or predict who will suffer from it, and there are no cures.

One thing is clear—autism is not a rare disorder. It affects as many as one in 250 children, four times as many boys as girls, across all racial groups. The number of children with autism spectrum disorders appears to have skyrocketed in the last 10 years, and although this finding is controversial, it has sparked a sense of urgency and an influx of federal and private research funding for autism research. The increased support is bringing renewed energy to efforts to define brain regions that are affected by autism and to identify autism susceptibility genes and environmental “triggers” for the disorder, and it is making some researchers optimistic.

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