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Thursday, 14 March, 2002, 10:49 GMT
Autism causes 'can be traced'
Autism affects the way those affected relate to others
Autism affects the way those affected relate to others
Doctors may be able to find a cause for autism in more than a third of cases, researchers in the Netherlands suggest.

Autism is not fully understood, and it is thought a range of factors may cause the disorder.

It is a developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and interacts with other people.


The abnormalities found are still inconsistent and do not apply across the population of those affected by autism

David Potter, National Autistic Society
It can mean severely impaired language and social skills, delayed development, and repetitive behaviours.

The disorder affects three times as many boys as girls, and three quarters of those with autism will have a mental disability.

It has been suggested that a combination of a genetic predisposition and a harmful external factor early in infancy could explain its development.

Symptom

The 25 autistic adults in the Netherlands research all had a mental disability.

They were given a full medical examination, including eye, ear nose and throat investigations, brain scans, tests for metabolic and blood abnormalities and full genetic analysis.

Definite causes of autism were found in five of the adults. These included foetal alcohol syndrome where the mother drinks too much during pregnancy, thereby affecting the baby, neonatal disorders, problems with the processing of cholesterol and genetic defects.

Probable causes were found for another four. In one, the characteristics of damage by an external agent were seen, though the mother denied abusing medication, alcohol or drugs during pregnancy.

The researchers, from the Department of Paediatrics at the Emma Children's Hospital, Amsterdam, suggest more research should be carried out looking at genetic factors in the development of autism, with large studies of families needed for more conclusive evidence.

Dr Clara van Karnebeek, who led the research, told BBC News Online the number of cases for which they had suggested a cause was important.

"It's significant because it's a really high number. One in every three patients - that's an important finding.

"It's important for patients and medical workers to know that there are actually causes of autism.

"Autism is more a symptom of an underlying illness than it's the diagnosis itself."

'Small and selective'

But experts in the UK say the Netherlands study's findings cannot be extrapolated across the autistic population because it concentrated on such a small number of severely affected autistic adults.

David Potter, head of policy for the National Autistic Society, said improved knowledge about the causes of autism could lead to better treatments and care for people with autism. and better advice for parents of the possible risks of autism in further children they might be planning or in the offspring of their own children.

But he said the Netherlands study was small and selective, and did not add any new knowledge.

"The problem is that the abnormalities found are still inconsistent and do not apply across the population of those affected by autism.

"It may be premature to extrapolate the results from this study to other populations of people with autism and learning disability. However, further studies of this nature would be welcome".

But Dr Anthony Bailey, Medical Research Council clinical scientist at the Institute of Psychiatry, London, said most scientists estimated a cause could be found in only around 10% of cases of autism, and that the Netherlands research may have reported a higher figure because it looked at a particularly handicapped group.

The research is published in the Journal of Medical Genetics.

See also:

14 Feb 02 | Health
Cash for autism research
05 Mar 01 | Health
Causes of autism probed
26 Jun 01 | Health
Autism 'may have quadrupled'
25 Apr 01 | Health
Possible autism test for newborns
04 Apr 01 | A-B
Autism
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