What Causes Autism?

Just asking the question, “What causes autism spectrum conditions?” can raise a lot of diverse opinions.  There are those within the autism community who are offended that there are those who want to find a cause so that a cure can be administered.  These individuals feel that they are being viewed as diseased or sub-human.

causes of autismOn the other hand, advocates of ongoing research in the field of autism argue that autism is a real disorder that can and should be cured.

I will not go into this in detail, since I have written a previous post about this controversy, as well as my own position.

Let’s consider that  Aristotle’s Golden Mean may best apply in the discussion of what causes autism.  In other words, I believe that a balanced approach is the best approach.  It’s extremely important to validate the uniqueness, talent, and positive characteristics of the autism spectrum.

I also believe that science and research is useful to the degree that it can help individuals with autism spectrum overcome some of the communication and relationship challenges that come with the autism.  Neuroscience, psychology, and other scientific disciplines can help all of us as we learn more about genes, the environment, and other factors that play into all sorts of conditions, such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, alcoholism, and so on.

I read quite a few articles on this subject, but the one I enjoyed the most comes from the PBS News Hour.  In this article, reporter Robert MacNeil interviewed the following researchers: The science director of theSimons Foundation in New York, Dr. Gerald Fishbach; Dr. Martha Herbert, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School; and Dr. Craig Newschaffer, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Genetic Causes of Autism

Scientists are a long way from knowing specific genes that cause autism spectrum conditions.  What they do know is that there are at least 20 different possible genes that can cause different types of autism.  In fact, Dr. Herbert pointed out that there may be hundreds of possible genes that cause autism.  However, there is no one specific gene that causes autism, per se.

Autism spectrum is called the spectrum for a reason.  It is incredibly complex in terms of levels of functioning, and how it affects each individual.  Dr. Fishbach points out that the most promising trend is the recognition that there are subsets of types of autism, and that future research will try to identify genes linked to each of those subsets.

Environmental Causes

There are a myriad of hypotheses as to what specific environmental factors could play a part in the development of autism.  Unfortunately, there is nothing conclusive in research to date.  You only have to read the article from Wikipedia to see that there have been between twenty to thirty ideas of what may contribute to the development of autism.

What is clear is everyone’s immune system, guts, and brains are exposed to a lot of neurotoxins and substances in the environment.  Scientists are studying “windows of vulnerability” for mothers who are pregnant: are they smokers, are they diabetic, do they suffer with certain auto-immune conditions?


In reviewing all this information, we may ask the question, “Is it worth it to pursue the causes of autism?”  Or, we may wonder whether these researchers get discouraged in the lack of progress in isolating the specific causes of autism.

I love Dr. Fishbach’s response:

ROBERT MACNEIL: Are you at all discouraged that after so much effort, investment, some of the best minds in the world on this, that — that autism is still so baffling?

DR. GERALD FISHBACH: I’m not discouraged at all about that. I think we’re addressing one of the most profound problems in not only all of medicine but in all of human existence. We’re talking about the ability to relate to other people, to empathize in a certain way and to comprehend. And I think it’s the most worthwhile, most challenging effort in science that I’ve ever been involved in. So I’m not discouraged at all.

While many would argue that individuals on the autism spectrum should be left alone and recognized as being fine the way they are, we can also recognize that research into ways to help them feel less isolated and more able to communicate and form meaningful relationships can only help in the long run.

I hope this article was helpful to you.  If you can contribute scientific articles and research studies, I will be glad to list them on this website.  What are your thoughts about this topic?


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 I'm Steve Borgman.  I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.

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  • neuroscience

    I really enjoyed reading your post. You have some very helpful info here.

  • Misty Plant

    I know ear infections are more common in Autistic or Aspie children. I would like someone to look into the possibility of a fetus developing an ear infection (I mean, if someone gets swimmer’s ear and gets an ear infection, isn’t it possible that developing in a sack of amniotic fluid could cause ear trouble?) If said fetus develops an ear infection, would it not also be possible for the fetus to develop a fever? Could this ear infection and fever be the cause of Autism? We’ll probably never know because I am not a scientist or a doctor. I am a nobody with different ability that others think is a disability. I don’t understand neurotypicals, and I believe they do a lot of things which don’t make sense (reading between the lines? For real? Just be straight forward! If you wanna be a subtle b*tch, then you are just a cowardly b*tch. Don’t hide your passive aggressive tendencies behind a smile hoping no one will catch on!)…

    But I digress…

    I’m in the boat of: there is nothing wrong with Aspies and we should (as a whole) stop accommodating a selfish world bent on making us feel inferior. Society wants to make us outcasts? Let’s make our own society.

    I just imagined a tree-house with a sign on the door: NO NEUROTYPICALS ALLOWED!!! Lol

  • Thanks for sharing, Misty. Yes, non-Aspies are a confusing bunch. You might want to consider reading A Field Guide To Earthlings, by Ian Ford (male Aspie author). As for your treehouse idea, I think you’d enjoy reading this article by Rudy Simone 🙂 http://www.autismsupportnetwork.com/news/imagine-world-where-aspergers-was-norm-autism-20394033. Figuring out the exact causes for autism: it seems to be an ongoing endeavor!