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Susan Levy on advances in autism research

Dr. Levy said that because the characteristics of autism disorders range so widely, it has been difficult for scientists to pin down causes and develop effective treatments. But, she said she has hope.

There are an estimated 1.5 million people in the U.S. with some form of autism. Their symptoms include mild to severe problems with human interaction and behavior. EarthSky spoke to Dr. Susan Levy, a developmental pediatrician and co-author of a 2009 review on the state of the science of autistic disorders, about where autism research is headed.

Susan Levy: What we’re aiming at is to try to make some of the weaknesses or problems less significant and have less of an impact on a child’s life, and help them to be as functional and as happy as they can be.

Dr. Levy said that because the characteristics of autism disorders range so widely, it has been difficult for scientists to pin down causes and develop effective treatments. But, she said she has hope.

Susan Levy: I think that there’s great hope for early identification. I think there’s hope for novel types of treatment. And, I think the last piece is the fact that technology, and sophisticated genetic tests are really accelerating.

Dr. Levy added that the genetic tests will provide a better understanding of the genetic factors contributing to autism. Dr. Levy said new studies are following the development of the baby siblings of autistic children. These siblings are at a higher risk for developing autism than the rest of the population. She believes that this research will help scientists learn how symptoms evolve, and how to treat children more effectively, earlier in life.

Levy added that early identification and treatment of a child’s autism, in many cases, can make a positive difference in how they develop in the future.

Susan Levy: I think we’re going to know a lot more about specific causes for autism, and we’re going to be able to perhaps develop treatments that can address, or can help prevent, or work somehow in between.

Dr. Levy expanded on the advancements in genetic research.

Susan Levy: I think genetic research has been what’s really starting to explode, and I mean that in a good way. There’s newer techniques that are looking at more subtle aspects of genetic abnormalities and looking at all the different genes on the chromosomes using very sophisticated techniques that can analyze big number of people. If you have a small number of people, you may have to look for a big difference. Whereas if you have a large number people, who have autism or do not have autism, you can decide if even a subtle abnormality is meaningful, because you have more power to detect it. So by these large-scale studies, you can identify some variants that we may not have known were significant and we now do know they are significant.

She said scientists are looking to identify the causes of autism.

Susan Levy: We’re slowly chipping away at the percentage of the kids that we know what the cause is. Unfortunately, until fairly recently, we knew what the cause was in less than 10% of cases. I think we’re starting to slowly increase that percentage, and have a better understanding of what the cause is.

Levy said overall, her review of the state of the science on autism spectrum disorders revealed an optimistic perspective on research.

Susan Levy: There are more and more strategies to identify which children may have an autism spectrum disorder, diagnose them earlier, diagnose with better tools, and then figure out what treatment which might be appropriate, and try to avoid different complications, and promote development in the individual to be the best they can be.

The authors of the review received grant support from the Center for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Education.

Lindsay Patterson

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