Can Autism Be Learned?

Explore the complex question, 'Can autism be learned?' as we delve into genetics, environment, and brain development.

Alan Hollander
July 6, 2024

Can Autism Be Learned?

Explore the complex question, 'Can autism be learned?' as we delve into genetics, environment, and brain development.

Understanding Autism Spectrum

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental condition that involves persistent challenges in social interaction, speech, nonverbal communication, and restricted/repetitive behaviors. The effects of autism and the severity of symptoms are different in each person.

Early Signs of Autism

Autism can typically be diagnosed by the age of two, but it's important to understand that every individual with autism is unique and early signs can vary greatly. Some early signs of autism can include failure to laugh, lack of engagement with others, unusual play skills, averse behaviors, and a refusal to respond to their name. Recognizing these early signs is crucial as early intervention can greatly benefit children with autism.

Therapy for Autism

Once an individual has been diagnosed with autism, a range of techniques, including therapy, may help. Children with early signs of autism show fewer signs of social communication or repeated actions associated with autism when they start receiving therapy and care at the age of twelve months.

A few prominent therapy techniques include:

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): This is the most commonly used therapy for children with autism. ABA aims to develop social skills, improve language competency, and enhance good behavior using positive reinforcement techniques, meaningful rewards, and consequences.

Equestrian Therapy: Also known as therapeutic horseback riding, this therapy allows children with autism to ride horses in a safe and non-threatening environment. Research indicates that equestrian therapy can improve social and communication skills while reducing irritability and hyperactivity in children with autism.

Sensory Integration: This therapy focuses on helping individuals with autism control sensory input. This is important as autism can affect how sensory information is processed, potentially leading to sensory over-stimulation or under-stimulation.

The selection of therapy is usually based on the individual's needs, preferences, and the severity of symptoms. It's important to remember that each person with autism is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. Therefore, it's vital to have a personalized approach when selecting therapy techniques.

Factors Influencing Autism

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is influenced by a combination of factors, including environmental, genetic, and neurological elements. While the common question "can autism be learned?" might arise, the current understanding is that autism cannot be "learned" or acquired through social influences or environmental factors alone. However, these aspects can interact with genetic predispositions to influence the development of ASD.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors can play a role in the development of ASD, although they are not solely responsible for its occurrence. For instance, a study found an association between ASD and a mother’s exposure to ozone pollution during the third trimester of pregnancy, as well as an increased likelihood of ASD diagnosis in infants exposed to particulate matter air pollution during the first year.

While these environmental factors can contribute to the risk of developing ASD, they are often combined with other genetic or neurodevelopmental factors. This combination of influences is what leads to the unique presentation of ASD in each individual.

Genetic Factors

Genetic factors significantly influence the risk of developing ASD. It's estimated that these factors contribute to 40 to 80 percent of the risk of developing ASD, with over 1,000 genes reported to be associated with the condition. However, not all these associations have been confirmed, and individually, most gene variations have only a small effect.

Moreover, recent research from UCLA Health has identified seven potential genes that increase the risk of autism in families with multiple children with autism: PLEKHA8, PRR25, FBXL13, VPS54, SLFN5, SNCAIP, and TGM1. This discovery is significant as previous studies have needed to analyze much larger cohorts to identify a similar number of novel risk genes.

Brain Development

Many genes associated with ASD are involved in the development of the brain. Aspects such as neuron production, growth, organization, and synaptic connections are affected. Studies suggest that individuals with ASD may have more neurons than normal during brain development and may exhibit overgrowth in parts of the outer brain surface, particularly the frontal and temporal lobes. These abnormalities are believed to underlie the socialization, communication, and cognitive differences seen in ASD [3].

Understanding the various factors influencing autism can help provide a more nuanced perspective on the condition. This knowledge can guide research, inform intervention strategies, and support individuals with ASD and their families.

Diagnosis and Prevalence

When addressing the question 'can autism be learned?', it's crucial to consider the prevalence and diagnosis process of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), along with the latest genetic research.

Prevalence of Autism

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of March 26, 2021, one in 54 eight-year-old children is diagnosed with autism, an increase from the one in 59 prevalence reported in previous estimates. Further, in 2021, ASD's prevalence in the United States was estimated to be at 1 in 44 children, showcasing a significant increase from the reported prevalence in the 1980s, which was about 1 in 2,000 children [3]. The rapid increase in diagnosed cases over the past few decades highlights the rising frequency of ASD diagnoses. Additionally, ASD is more than four times as common in boys than it is in girls, indicating a significant gender disparity in the prevalence of the disorder [3].

Diagnosis Process

The diagnosis process of autism involves multiple stages, including initial screenings, comprehensive diagnostic evaluations, and continuous monitoring and support. It's a process that involves a multi-disciplinary team of professionals, including pediatricians, psychologists, and speech and language pathologists, among others. The comprehensive diagnostic evaluation involves a thorough examination of the child's behavior and development, often including direct observation and parental interviews.

Genetic Research on Autism

Genetic factors are estimated to contribute to 40 to 80 percent of the risk of developing ASD, with over 1,000 genes reported to be associated with the condition [3]. However, not all these associations have been confirmed, and individually, most gene variations have only a small effect. Environmental risk factors such as parental age and birth complications are also considered in determining an individual's risk of developing ASD.

Recent research has unveiled new genetic risk genes for ASD and suggests that language delay should be reconsidered as a core component of autism. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on July 28, identified seven potential genes that increase the risk of autism in families with multiple children with autism: PLEKHA8, PRR25, FBXL13, VPS54, SLFN5, SNCAIP, and TGM1.

Researchers found that children who inherit rare mutations from unaffected parents along with polygenic risk are more likely to have autism, which supports the liability threshold model in behavioral genetics. Further, a study of 1,004 families with at least two children diagnosed with autism revealed that children who had language delay had a higher likelihood of inheriting a polygenic score associated with autism, suggesting a link between genetic risk for autism and language delay [4].

These findings underscore the importance of genetic research in understanding autism and its prevalence, further debunking the notion that autism can be learned. The genetic underpinnings of autism, combined with the role of environmental factors, suggest a complex interplay of elements that contribute to the development of ASD.

Behavioral Symptoms of Autism

Behavioral symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can vary widely and appear at different times in an individual's life. Some may show signs within the first few months, while others may not exhibit signs until much later. These symptoms can be grouped into three main categories: social interaction challenges, restricted behaviors, and masking.

Social Interaction Challenges

People with autism often face difficulty with social interactions and communication skills. This may manifest in various ways, such as challenges in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships. These individuals might find it hard to express their own feelings or understand others' emotions and intentions. Difficulties can also extend to non-verbal communication, such as maintaining eye contact, understanding body language, or using facial expressions appropriately [6].

Signs of social interaction challenges can be observed as early as 12 months of age, such as lack of interest in other people, not responding to their name, or not seeking help or sharing experiences with others.

Restricted Behaviors

Children and adults with autism may display restricted and repetitive behaviors. To receive an autism diagnosis, a person must show at least two types of these behaviors. This could include repetitive movements, like hand flapping or rocking, insisting on sameness and routine, showing intense interests, or displaying a heightened or reduced sensitivity to sensory stimulation [6].

Additional signs of these behaviors might become apparent by 2 years of age, including repetitive actions, attachment to specific objects, resistance to change, or unusual sensory interests.

Masking in Autism

Masking, or camouflaging, refers to the phenomenon where some individuals with autism suppress or hide their autism symptoms to meet societal expectations or be accepted. This behavior can often lead to mental health issues, as maintaining this facade can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. Research indicates that masking is more prevalent in girls and women with autism.

Understanding these behavioral symptoms is crucial in addressing the question "can autism be learned?" It further emphasizes the importance of early detection and intervention in ensuring that individuals with autism receive the support and care they need.

Importance of Early Intervention

Addressing the question "can autism be learned?", the focus should be placed on early intervention and how it can help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Early intervention is crucial for children with ASD as it can lead to improved quality of life both in the present and future, with the potential for positive outcomes compared to starting interventions later in childhood or adulthood.

Benefits of Early Intervention

The sooner the diagnosis of autism, the sooner children can access intervention, increasing the chances of developing skills and managing sensory experiences and behaviors. Professionals can reliably diagnose autism at the age of two years old and older, but they can suspect autism under the age of two.

Studies have shown that children who receive early intervention services for autism have better outcomes in communication, socialization, and behavior compared to those who do not receive such intervention. Additionally, early intervention can improve a child's IQ by an average of 17 points.

Early Intervention Techniques

One of the most effective early intervention techniques for ASD is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. This type of therapy typically begins as early as two or three years old. During these early years, the brain is rapidly developing, making early intervention crucial for a child's later development and functioning [7].

ABA therapy involves a variety of techniques, such as positive reinforcement, to improve a variety of skills in children with ASD. It can be tailored to meet the unique needs of each child, focusing on areas such as social skills, communication, and daily living skills.

Long-Term Impact of Early Intervention

Research indicates that early intervention in autism treatment can have long-term benefits. Children who receive early intervention are more likely to attend regular education classes, have higher rates of employment in adulthood, and be less likely to require support services later in life.

In summary, while autism cannot be learned in the traditional sense, early intervention techniques can help children with ASD to learn necessary skills and behaviors. These interventions have been shown to lead to improved outcomes in both the short- and long-term, highlighting the importance of early diagnosis and treatment.

Life Skills for Autism

Individuals with autism can indeed learn various life skills that enhance their independence and overall quality of life. These skills range from self-care activities, cooking, money management, shopping, to room organization, and transportation. Such skills are typically learned over time, beginning at a young age and continuing into adolescence and adulthood [8].

Teaching Life Skills

The teaching of life skills to individuals with autism should be tailored to each person's unique abilities and pace of learning. Some may achieve independence with minimal outside support, while others may require assistance around the clock. Early development of life skills can significantly impact independence as individuals grow older.

Effective strategies for teaching life skills at home include assessing a person's current skills, using visual supports, and implementing a general three-step approach. These approaches focus on building independence through strengthening communication, introducing visual schedules, working on self-care skills, teaching decision-making, practicing money skills, and much more.

Developing Independence

For individuals with autism, developing life skills involves enhancing executive function skills such as organizing, planning, prioritizing, and decision-making, in addition to basic daily living skills. These skills are crucial for fostering independence and self-esteem, which contribute to overall happiness in life.

Visual Supports for Learning

Visual supports, such as creating visual aids and checklists, can be beneficial for teaching life skills to individuals with autism. Visual cues and supports can help break down complex routines into manageable tasks, aiding in skill development and fostering independence in daily activities [8].

In essence, life skills training forms a crucial part of the learning journey for individuals with autism. Such training, when tailored to individual needs, can significantly enhance their ability to function independently and lead a fulfilling life. It's important to remember that while autism can't be learned, life skills for individuals with autism certainly can.