Today is the 8th annual World Autism Day. This day was declared by the United Nations General assembly in 2008 after many members became “deeply concerned by the prevalence and high rate of autism in children in all regions of the world and the prevailing challenges to long-term health care, education, training and intervention programs undertaken by Governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector, as well as its tremendous impact on children, their families, communities and societies.”
For scientists and advocates working in the field, today is a day to highlight the current issues surrounding autism, and the need for more research to tackle this dynamic condition that is increasingly affecting more and more children while the scientific community is still at a loss for the cause.
At the Texas Medical Center in Houston, patients and their families are lucky in that they have numerous resources available to them that provide assistance and support as they navigate the myriad of challenges that come with a diagnosis of autism. One such resource is The Autism Center at the Children’s Learning Institute, a part of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). The center provides evaluation, diagnosis, support, education and advocacy for children at birth through age 18 years with a wide range of developmental, behavioral or learning issues related to autism spectrum. The center and its experienced and compassionate staff aim to offer patients and their families an “Autism Home,” where all their medical and therapeutic needs can be met.
Dr. Pauline Filipek, M.D, the CDC’s “Learn the Signs. Act Early.” Autism Initiative Ambassador for Texas, a board certified pediatrician and child neurologist, is the Director of the Autism Center and shared her thoughts on the importance of autism awareness and what resources are available in Texas: “Though the prospect of a child being diagnosed with a developmental delay or an autism spectrum disorder may seem frightening, there are many services available to help. For example, Texas offers Early Childhood Intervention, a program that supports families and provides services for children from birth to age 3 who have a developmental delay. For children ages 3-5, Preschool Programs for Children with Disabilities offers educational services through local school districts. Even if a child does not qualify for public services, there are still resources available that may help.”
Dr. Filipek continues, “Texas is well above average in the age of diagnosis of children with autism, missing the window of opportunity for early interventions. The Autism Center at the Children’s Learning Institute at UTHealth has a team that works closely with families to enhance opportunities for children with autism spectrum disorders and is part of a statewide network of clinics providing thorough diagnosis and treatment.”
Presently, there can’t be a discussion of the science of autism without examining the controversies that plague it; namely the worries that parents have concerning the link between vaccines and the development of autism. Unfortunately, even though this “link” has been proven to be unfounded, the myth persists and it has had adverse consequences. One of which was played out recently when the largest measles outbreak in the US since the disease was declared eliminated began in Disneyland and subsequently spread to multiple states, due to the fact that parents in California were making the decision not to vaccinate their children.
At TMC not only is there the Autism Center, but also the Sabin Vaccine Institute, whose mission is to reduce needless human suffering from vaccine-preventable and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) by developing new vaccines. Its President, Dr. Peter Hotez, is not only an advocate for vaccine development, but he is also a father of a daughter with autism. TMC is lucky to have such a great public health advocate working to bring awareness to the importance of vaccines and the need to assure parents there is no risk for their children to develop autism.
Last year on Autism Awareness Day, Dr. Hotez wrote an important Op-Ed piece stating, “For me, the issue is completely straightforward. From a scientific perspective, there is no scenario where it is even remotely possible that vaccines could cause autism. Instead everything I know both as a parent and as a scientist points to autism as a genetic or epigenetic condition. Sadly, there are still widely held misconceptions about vaccines and many parents still continue to attempt to withhold or delay urgently needed vaccines for their child.”
Dr. Hotez continued, “As a parent and a vaccine researcher, it is my hope that we put all available resources towards finding the true causes of autism, while also continuing to fully fund the research of new and emerging vaccines that have already saved millions of lives and will save millions more in the next decade. Both issues are critical to our long-term public health and economic prosperity.”
There is no doubt that the same sentiment is shared among all stakeholders in the autism community, patients, their families, caretakers, and scientists alike; that finding the true cause of autism and one day a cure will be a reality.