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Autism Study Shifts Focus From Nature to Nurture

Posted on Jul 5, 2011
Flickr/Venex_jpb (CC-BY-SA)

Like many of its kind, the new study on autism out this week in the Archives of General Psychiatry uses twins (these not included) for the sake of comparison.

Research on autism in recent decades has emphasized the contributing role of genetics, but a new study out of UCSF and Stanford might prove to be a game-changer, ranking environmental factors (e.g., parenting) higher than biology in order of importance.  —KA

San Francisco Chronicle:

The study, published in Monday’s issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, looked at 192 pairs of twins in California and, using a mathematical model, found that genetics account for about 38 percent of the risk of autism, and environmental factors account for about 62 percent.

Previous twin studies had suggested that autism was highly inheritable, with genetics accounting for roughly 90 percent of all cases worldwide. As such, much recent research into autism has focused on tracking down the genes and unlocking the complex genetic codes that are associated with autism.

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By gerard, July 6, 2011 at 8:12 pm Link to this comment

Bernheim:  Exactly!  “In short when all is said and done, autism, like other forms of mental illness or socio/pathological disturbances, as well as physiological abnormalities such as cerebral palsey, Parkinsonism, or epilepsy will be found to be due to damage sustained by the brain pre- or post-natal or congenitally.”

My question is this:  How likely is it that “autism” etc. (being a lack of (or change in) the ability to relate to others at a feeling level) be a signal that the human brain is “constituting” lack of empathy in order to defend the human mind against excessive pain, and the constant painful awareness of being forced to empathize wth agony?  In other words, while we may see it (naturally) as a “disorder”, could it in reality be a genetic manifestation of “natural selection” that will ultimately change “human nature” by reducing the ability to “relate” and thus cut back on the ability (necessity?) of suffering with others?  Could humans actually be becoming less sympathetic as a way of minimizing the effects of the constant onslalaught of horrors?  I know it sounds off-the-wall, but ...
“human nature” is not immutable, after all.

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By berniem, July 6, 2011 at 5:22 pm Link to this comment

The human brain is affected by chemo/electrical impulses originating from a myriad of glandular secretions produced in response to sensory as well as other forms of internal and external stimuli(or lack thereof). Dysfunction of any kind is directly related to the mitigation of the normal innerworkings of all of these variables which constantly bombard and interact with the brain’s biological structures. These mitigating variables can derive from genetics, trauma, toxins, or environmental factors, among others, and essentially result in damage to one degree or another be it temporary or permanent and wildly divergent in terms of severity which can range from completely devastating to undicernable. In short when all is said and done, autism, like other forms of mental illness or socio/pathological disturbances, as well as physiological abnormalities such as cerebral palsey, Parkinsonism, or epilepsy will be found to be due to damage sustained by the brain pre- or post-natal or congenitally.

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By kerryrose, July 6, 2011 at 4:46 pm Link to this comment

Vaccinations were just cleared of any blame in contributing to autism.  Now the pharmaceutical industry, terrified that it may not escape further scrutiny, has influenced the conversation.

Now, the pharmaceutical industry shifts the blame to the mother so that no one will look its way again. 

It’s a diversion.

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By gerard, July 6, 2011 at 1:21 pm Link to this comment

rbrooks:  From what I read, it’s not safe to rule out anything yet, so far as autism research is concerned.  It’s in its infancy.  But I regard the concurrence of increasing symptoms of “lack of empathy” and “social relatedness” (widely obvious as necessary to support war and organized murder) as possibly not a pure coincidence.  Rather it may be a likely inducer of changing physical/psychic symptoms of rejection of any kind.  Constant worldwide organized mayhem is not good for human beings. The revolt may be occurring in unsuspected places.

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By rbrooks, July 5, 2011 at 2:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I guess childhood vaccines aren’t considered an environmental factor, right? Can we safely assume that ruling out mercury in vaccines would be the objective of this study? If so, nice try.

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By BBFmail, July 5, 2011 at 2:05 pm Link to this comment

This study gives a pass to the companies who manufacture anti-depressants:

“The study doesn’t prove that the antidepressants actually caused autism, and researchers stressed that women taking such drugs should not stop if they are pregnant or about to become pregnant. But they added that studies like theirs are increasingly important, especially given the new information about environmental effects on autism.”

The study advises women taking those drugs NOT TOO STOP if they are pregnant or about to become pregnant….doesn’t prove that anti-depressants cause autism.  Sure sounds like a pass to me.

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By Night-Gaunt, July 5, 2011 at 1:18 pm Link to this comment

The most severe of those IDed with Autism have a devil of a time communicating and it often hides their intelligence, Tobysgirl. So they may look addled, something B. Franklin was called when he was a child, but when they breech that barrier they find that the children have either normal or even enhanced IQ of some type. Asperger‘s has a certain similar etiology but the communications ability is good, they just can’t relate well with people. There are other syndromes and Personality Disorders that would complicate this topic but can also cause many problems in sociability.

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By Tobysgirl, July 5, 2011 at 11:54 am Link to this comment

gerard, it is good to remember that many autistic children are severely retarded. As a society, we only see the gifted people, such as Temple Grandin.

I think your point about violence is well-taken, but needs to be expanded. We are a society (and a world) that values aggression and non-empathy. The so-called feminine values have little or no place in our culture; one does not make money being a nurturer. In pursuing what we call success, we have poisoned the Earth, and then we wonder why our children become autistic or get cancer. I think autism probably has numerous causes, and those causes reflect the world we have created.

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By gerard, July 5, 2011 at 10:51 am Link to this comment

One often-mentioned characteristic of “autists” is “lack of empathy” or difficulty in relating to others at the feeling level.  At this point it would be appropriate to ask, then, just who has “autism”—who “lacks empathy” and “has difficulty relating to others”—a rising number of newborns or the warring, inhuman and abusive societies into which they are born?

Researchers of autism themselves are now asking whether their broad differences of opinion may be due to asking the wrong questions. I’m for asking questions about our violent, inhuman governments as well as the pill industries eager to dump drugs on any and all, to “cure” us of the ills those violent societies breed.

Incidentally, it is well to mention early on that “autists” frequently have rare skills such as “perfect pitch” and IQs of up to 130, whatever that means.  They also are particulaly good at three-dimensional drawing.  Many test out to know answers to questions even though they cannot express those answers verbally. Some are also unusually good with algorithms. 

Some research has established that the number of “autistic” kids born into military families is higher than the “regular” population.  Why is that?
And more boys are born “autistic” than girls?  Why?
What role might violence have?

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By Gmonst, July 5, 2011 at 9:47 am Link to this comment

Big B,

I think you have Autism confused with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD).  ADHD is the standard, won’t sit still doesn’t pay attention disorder that is very commonly diagnosed and is often treated with ritalin.  Autism is characterized by a disinterest in social interaction and often (but not always) severe mental deficit.  Autistics for the most part live in their own world, they avoid eye contact and have difficulty interpreting the cues of facial expessions, and changes in voice tone that we all use in communication.  The deficits are often quite severe.  Those with down syndrome are usually quite interested in social interaction and would definitely not be considered autistic.

This article actually includes information on two separate studies.  The main study cited found that there is a likely environmental component to the development of autism.  At the end of the article a completely separate study is mentioned which found an increase in autism rates in children of mothers who had taken an antidepressant drug.  If antidepressants did prove to have a causal connection, I would think that would put more the of the blame on pharmaceutical companies than bad parents.

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By Render, July 5, 2011 at 8:34 am Link to this comment

It is believed that trimerosal used in vaccines may be the culprit in autism.  Abstract -“Neurotoxic effects of postnatal thimerosal are mouse strain dependent”. Hornig M, Chian D, Lipkin WI

Scientists at the Whittemore Peterson Institute for neuro-immune disease ( in Reno believe there is a link between autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and atypical MS.  The WPI is doing groundbreaking work while the Feds discredit them.  This is a worldwide public health nightmare that the drug companies don’t want us to know about.

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By Aaron Ortiz, July 5, 2011 at 7:47 am Link to this comment

I doubt that it was the companies that make
antidepressants who funded this study, because the
study found a correlation between anti-deppresant use
in the year of pregnancy and an elevated risk for

The evidence suggests that genetic predisposition for
autism is the primary factor, and it is exacerbated by
environmental (chemical?) factors.

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By Big B, July 5, 2011 at 6:53 am Link to this comment

Almost every child in the US that is on ridalin is now listed as being “autistic”. As for ITW’s comment of “blame the parents and the environment”, I think you may have unknowingly hit the nail on the head. Much of the increase in the autism numbers in the US is a result of more kids now being diagnosed with autism that were previously listed as “retarded” (I still use the word)when it is quite often two different conditions (of course a downs syndrome person is autistic, but thats not their primary problem) “Autism” has, unfortunately, been turned into a generic term in the US to describe any condition that parents can used to blame anyone and anything else for their children not being perfect.

When I was a child in the early 70’s I wasn’t “hyper”, I was active. I wasn’t “unfocused” I was a daydreamer. I was just like most of the other kids in my generation. Hell, my mother wondered if something was wrong with me anytime I wasn’t outside running around like an idiot(she used to say she knew when I was sick, I wasn’t getting into any trouble) If I was born in 1999, I would be given drugs to help curb my “anti-social” impulses. If a child doesn’t listen to you these days, they must have “concentration issues” or “short attention spans”. That’s why we parents have mouths, so we can say it a second time. If your kid gets up and cleans his room right after the first time you say it,that’s when to worry.

Autism is a real problem in our nation. But we do our children no favors by diagnosing them as autistic when they are 2 or 3, and treating them differently than all the other children for the rest of their lives. These days, if a child is not a genius when they enter kindergarten, they must be “learning dis-abled”. No, it’s not bad parenting, or vaccines, or the food they eat, or air they breathe, or climate they live in. No, it’s probably a combination of all those factors. We want one cause because it would be easy, and that is the legacy of our generation.

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By AnnaCatherine, July 5, 2011 at 6:26 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

When in doubt, blame the parents. Not this time. Parents have bought into the idea that everything that goes wrong with their children is their own fault, for a long time now. It simply isn’t true. We have to look at what has changed as the incidents of autism has grown. What is different about the way we care for and treat new-borns that’s different from their parents and grandparents. #1 they are surrounded by plastic and other synthetics. #2 What they eat and drink poses many questions. #3 Vaccines are combined instead of being given seperately. This is ‘heavy artillery’ for a tiny body. That deserves a look. Breast feeding makes no difference. Sorry, this cannot be thrown back at parents. Science in its quest for “quick and easy” has to examine our food sources for openers.

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By prisnersdilema, July 5, 2011 at 6:16 am Link to this comment

How are we going to ever tell for sure whether it’d nature or nurture, when nature is
being completely screwed with by the corporations?

Those same corporations control who gets money for.

They will never fund the truth.

The Autistic suffer from some of the same problems that cloned animals do. Namely
severe mitochondrial disease, caused by destruction of mitochondria. The use of
viruses to inset new DNA into the cells nucleus, in GMO’s, and genetically created
vaccines, is the culprit.

However, this fact will never come out, because the plutocracy, makes too much money,
screwing with your food, and the cotton you wear, and patenting new organisms.

So you and your children, will just have to suffer instead. There is a way to reverse,
mitochondrial destruction, but the FDA is working hard to make it illegal.

So go back, to your waffles made of tree bark, HFCS, GMO corn, and GMO sugar
beets, take your anti cholesterol meds, and your anti anxiety meds, and have a nice day.

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By BBFmail, July 5, 2011 at 5:15 am Link to this comment

Please let us know who funded this study. Was it by any chance the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture anti-depressants?  Was it those companies who produce vaccines?

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By Inherit The Wind, July 5, 2011 at 3:23 am Link to this comment

In other words, back to Square One: They don’t have a clue as to what causes Autism.  So…blame the parents and the environment.

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