Seminar reveals autism facts, fiction

Fombonne (right) and Ricketts, during the autism seminar
Fombonne (right) and Ricketts, during the autism seminar

With autism rates especially high in Oregon and rising everywhere, University of Oregon experts on May 7 helped the public separate fact from fiction during a seminar at the Ford Alumni Center.

The group discussed the latest in research and plans for a center at the UO, during an at-times emotional, three-hour program at which many shared stories of the impact of autism in their lives.

Autism is a disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. The event, attended by more than 100 alumni, educators and others, was presented by the alumni association and the College of Education.

The incidence of autism has climbed to 1 in 88 youth, with four boys diagnosed for every girl, said keynote speaker Dr. Eric Fombonne, of Oregon Health and Science University. But due to changes in record-keeping over the years, he added, there is no way to determine whether higher autism rates are due to changes in its definition and diagnosis or environmental factors.

More research is necessary on gestational exposure to specific drugs, diet during pregnancy, age of parents (especially males), babies of very low birth weight and other environmental factors. It’s clear, however, that there is no connection between autism and vaccinations, Fombonne said, and he urged parents to immunize children against diseases such as measles.

Following his presentation, Laura Lee McIntyre, an associate professor with the university’s Special Education and Clinical Sciences department, conducted a panel discussion with Fombonne; Philip Washbourne, associate professor of biology; Judy Newman, co-director of Early Childhood CARES in the College of Education; and Wendy Ricketts, mother of an autistic 10-year-old boy and patron of the college.

Ricketts’ son, George, was prone to biting and tantrums as a 3-year-old. The family endured years on a “roller coaster ride” of highs and lows, Ricketts said, as they sought first to identify, and then treat, his condition.

“No one seemed to have that silver bullet,” Ricketts said, pausing to collect herself. “We’ve learned to accept that our son is on the autism spectrum. We’re not looking for that silver bullet.”

Ricketts cautioned parents to develop patience and an acceptance for “the long road” of caring for an autistic child. “You are the best and only true advocate for your child,” she said. “You have to fight hard for your child.”

Ricketts’ story is typical, Fombonne said; there are early indications of autism that parents can look for, including a child’s disinterest in “looking up” or tracking a parent’s cues. Early intervention is critical and the U.S. has introduced universal screening for autism at 18 months and two years, but the approach has yet to be properly evaluated, he said.

“When parents say, ‘I’m concerned,’” Fombonne added, “studies show the parents are actually right.”

Washbourne, who studies the formation of synapses – “points of communication” between nerve cells – discussed research with zebra fish that contributes to the understanding of autism. His group has developed fish specimens with the same cognitive deficits as humans, providing a way to test drugs that could be beneficial, Washbourne said.

“We’re working to fund the future of this research,” he added. “We’ve got to throw everything we have at this problem.”

In response to a question about services from a young mother, McIntyre said the college has as a “top development priority” plans to create a family autism center.

The center will coordinate effective, evidence-based services for children with autism and their families. Services will be provided in a physical center on the UO campus and through outreach in communities, and activities will be firmly grounded in interdisciplinary autism research funded through federal grants, foundations and private donors.

“We’ll rely on parents to help shape the vision to make it into a center that serves our needs, and we (as a community) get to decide what those needs are,” McIntyre told the woman.

Near the close of the program, a UO student told the audience that both she and her partner are autistic, and that the condition has helped her succeed in graduate school. In response to her question, Fombonne said there is no research yet on the probability that their child will be autistic.

Despite the focus on intervening into and treating autism, McIntyre said society could also do more to recognize the “wonderful strengths” of those with autism.

“We’re all on the (autism) spectrum,” she added. “Each one of us has our strengths and challenges.”

- story and photo by Matt Cooper, UO Office of Strategic Communications