Our understanding of autism continues to develop. What were once thought of as multiple conditions are today seen as different subtypes of what has become known as autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. These conditions range from mild to severe, and individuals with autism have a very wide range of strengths and challenges. Some may require assistance with daily living activities for their entire lives, while others may be able to live entirely independently.
What Is Autism?
Autism is not a single condition. Rather, it is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of subtypes. Autism Speaks explains,
“Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 59 children in the United States today”.
The Autism Society further explores this definition.
“Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability; signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate, and interact with others. ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.”
The CDC points out that autism
“can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people, but people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people”.
What Are the Symptoms of Autism?
Because autism is a spectrum disorder, the symptoms of the condition vary significantly from individual to individual. In fact, it is possible for two individuals on the spectrum to share no symptoms at all. However, there are some commonalities that can distinguish ASD from other conditions and behaviors.
Social symptoms are among the most common. Many children with ASD show little interest in interacting or playing with other children, and may prefer to be alone. Many children do not understand their own emotions or those of others, and may actively avoid making eye contact.
Roughly 40% of children with ASD do not communicate verbally at all. Up to 30% will develop some language skills over time, and some children will develop near-normal language skills in their teens or young adult years.
Many people with ASD also have specific patterns of behavior. For instance, many of them engage in repetitive behaviors, such as hand-flapping. Others must move constantly, while others are sensitive to touch. Yet others will avoid imaginative or make-believe play, while others may exhibit aggressive behavior, even with themselves. ASD sufferers may have short attention spans, and may act without thinking about the consequences of their actions.
What Causes Autism?
There is no single, clear-cut cause of autism. Scientists believe these conditions arise from a mixture of genetic and environmental factors. However, vaccines have been proven not to cause ASD. Among some risk factors are increased age of parents, prematurity at birth, very close pregnancies (closer than one year apart) and low birth weight. Parents who carry specific genetic changes are likely to pass those to their children, who may develop ASD due to genetic factors.
Can Autism Be Treated?
Yes, autism can be treated, although there is no cure. A wide range of different behavioral treatments and interventions can be used, ranging from applied behavioral analysis to occupational therapy to relationship development interventions to speech therapy.
In addition to treating ASD-related behaviors, patients with autism and their caregivers must also frequently manage other conditions that go hand-in-hand with an ASD diagnosis. Individuals with ASD frequently suffer from epilepsy, GI problems, feeding issues, sleep disturbances, anxiety, ADHD, OCD, and depression. Many of these conditions can be managed with therapy and medication, although the choice to use medication is a very personal one and something that should be carefully considered by caregivers.
In essence the treatment of ASD is symptomatic and does not address the cause (or rather causes) and targets prevailing symptoms such as inattention, disorganized behavior, thought dysfunction or a mood disorder, sleep problems, impulsivity or obsessions and compulsions.
How Can Stem Cell Therapy Help with Autism?
Stem cells have been heavily studied for decades for their use in treating a very wide range of health conditions. One of those is autism. There have been numerous instances in which the transfusion of stem cells into an ASD patient has shown at least some beneficial results over time, as well.
In a study published in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine, researchers studied 25 children with ASD between the ages of 2 and 5. Stem cell therapy was provided once, with a follow-up assessment a one month and six months afterward. Significant improvements in autism-related symptoms were reported.
California’s Stem Cell Agency highlights a number of cases where ASD children were saw improvements after receiving stem cell therapy. A clinical trial at Duke University also saw similar improvements for children with ASD who received stem cell treatment.
One of the theories of underlying causes of autism is inflammatory another is an autoimmune. Stem cells may possibly help by normalizing such processes.
What Are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are the building blocks of the body. They are present from embryo formation through old age, and they play a critical role in the body’s ability to heal and regenerate itself. One of their most noticeable functions is regulation of inflammation within the nervous system either by restoring normal metabolism or by pacifying an immune attack on the neurons.
Why Use Allogeneic Stem Cells?
Both allogeneic and autologous stem cells are used in experimental treatments, but it is important to realize that allogeneic stem cells offer significantly more benefits. These stem cells are sourced from banked umbilical cord blood and tissue, rather than from the patient’s own fat tissue or bone marrow. They are also young and highly energetic, meaning they are far better able to multiply within the body, heal damage, and transform themselves into new cell types. Autologous stem cells, on the other hand, are as old as the patient’s body, and usually have significant genetic damage accumulated that can cause a negative immune system response.
In the end, stem cell therapy may not be a cure for autism, but it has shown promise in helping ASD patients live more normal lives. However, additional study of allogeneic stem cells is necessary. Currently, there are no FDA-approved stem cell therapies in the US, and any such treatment should be regarded as experimental in nature only.