According to an April announcement from an ongoing study by the Centers for Disease Control examining the medical and school records of 8-year-old children, one in 59 may have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This is an increase of 15 percent over data from two years ago, which estimated that one in 68 children was affected.
The new figures also show a 100 percent increase over the same data set released in 2008, which had indicated a prevalence of 1 in 125. Both rates indicate that autism is vastly more common than was thought just a few decades ago, when one in thousands of children was thought to have the disorder. Better diagnostic tools, growing knowledge among parents and providers, and changes to broaden the definition of ASD by the American Psychiatric Association are just a few of the factors that have likely contributed to the dramatic rise in rates.
As researchers continue to study the reasons for the alarming trend, the financial impact of ASD continues to mount: According to Cleveland Clinic, the annual cost of treating and caring for individuals with autism is $90 billion. And in 10 years, costs associated with ASD are estimated to balloon to $300 billion.
For those developing or seeking new treatments, the difficulty in understanding the cause of ASD only makes treatment more difficult. There is no single known cause of autism: Genetics, environment, exposure to certain diseases while in the womb, and parental age are just a few of the factors being studied as potential root causes.
To address this, researchers have intensified traditional efforts, like drug development, while also getting creative and collaborating beyond medicine. Given the ever-evolving understanding of ASD and the wide variety of new treatments always in development, keeping up with new autism therapies can be difficult. Here are a few of the emerging ASD treatments that have captured the attention of families and clinicians in 2018.
The FDA has approved several drugs to treat various signs and symptoms associated with autism. According to an article in the journal Pharmacy and Therapeutics, two of these drugs, risperidone and aripiprazole, are “the mainstays of ASD treatment.” However, “they are FDA-approved only for managing the irritability associated with the disorder.”
With these treatments approved in the mid- to late 2000s, families of those with ASD remain eager for new, effective treatment options from drug companies. That’s why many impacted by autism were intrigued in January of this year, when balovaptan, a treatment developed by Swiss drugmaker Roche, was granted a rare Breakthrough Therapy designation by the FDA, putting it on the fast track for further trials and potential approval.
If the nationwide trial of 300 participants is successful, balovaptan may be the first FDA-approved drug for improving social interactions among those with ASD, which would address one of three primary symptoms described by advocacy and education organization Autism Speaks.
While behavioral specialists and speech and language therapists are some of the others one might expect to be on the forefront of ASD care, their efforts are being leveraged by app developers such as TouchChat and Proloquo2go.
The tools allow those with ASD to better communicate with those around them and have been adopted by Cleveland Clinic Children’s Center for Autism to help give a voice to those with ASD. One staff member told Cleveland Fox 8 about the improvement that the technology has helped bring one of her students at the Cleveland Clinic-sponsored Learner School: “When she started she was primarily communicating with gestures and pointing to items,” said Heidi Ritenour, the coordinator of Educational Services. “Now she has a communication device that she’s very fluent with.”
Cleveland Clinic continues to extend this collaborative approach through a series of workshops that bring together families and those involved in treating ASD to share knowledge and discuss advances in ASD treatment.
Sometimes, developing an effective tool for treatment means taking a closer look at a drug that’s been known to medicine for some time, but perhaps not fully studied. Medical marijuana has been legalized in 31 states and will be on the midterm ballot in several others this November. The change isn’t surprising, given the rising public support for legalized marijuana and increasing awareness about the variety of conditions it may help treat.
One medical marijuana state, New York, lists more than a dozen qualifying conditions or symptoms on its Department of Health website. Now, some are considering whether cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive ingredient in the marijuana plant, might benefit some ASD patients with certain symptoms common to the disorder. Those with ASD often have inflammation of the gut and brain, says Dr. JoQueta Handy.
In those cases, Handy cites CBD as part of a holistic approach to treatment: “Because of this inflammatory response, they can experience pain and exhibit behaviors associated with their pain response. Their nervous systems are in a state of constant fight-or-flight, producing anxiety-like symptoms. They experience issues with being able to fall asleep or stay asleep, and CBD can be helpful in easing these symptoms.”
While important questions remain about understanding the root causes of autism spectrum disorder, innovators from multiple disciplines continue to develop new and cross-collaborative treatments from a variety of disciplines and knowledge backgrounds. Thanks to the efforts of those in medicine and other fields, rapid advancements are taking place that may soon yield breakthrough treatments for ASD’s symptoms — and, perhaps, will one day prevent or cure the root cause of ASD itself.