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It has long been debated what causes a child to be diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum. Some people think it's genetic. While others feel that it’s environmental.

This blog isn’t meant to cause a debate, but to instead provide insight on new research that is being conducted through the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) in conjunction with research teams from Johns Hopkins and Yale. 

As someone who works closely with children on the spectrum, I am always looking for new research that would provide valuable information to parents! I think it’s important for knowledge AND to ease fears and misconceptions about any disorder that a child is diagnosed with having. 

Research Details

For the first time in research history, this team looked at language onset – the age at which children spoke their first word – as a way to locate a gene that may be linked to the development of Autism.

Children typically utter their first word by the age of one; however those who are diagnosed on the spectrum, may not develop their first word until much later. Unfortunately, some never learn language at all. Late language onset is one symptom that is shared by children who have autism. 

In an earlier study, the UCLA investigators studied the DNA of 291 families nationwide who had donated blood samples to the Los Angeles-based Autism Genetic Resource Exchange. Each family had at least one autistic child. They excluded children that never used verbal language from their study. 

The findings connected a specific region of Chromosome 7, called 7q35, to autism.

What is The Gene?

In the current study, the researchers scrutinized every gene in the 7q35 region using DNA samples from 172 families. They identified four promising genes; one of the candidates was CNTNAP2.

To verify their findings, the scientists conducted a second test on a new group of 304 families. The CNTNAP2 gene showed up consistently, confirming its implication in language development.

Furthering their research, the team did advanced testing and determined that the CNTNAP2 gene was highly linked in early brain development of structures involved in language and thought.

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In an unexpected third finding, the scientists found that statistical evidence for the gene was strongest in families with autistic boys. Less of an association appeared in families with autistic children of both genders or with autistic girls only. 

This finding is significant because we know that autism affects males 3 times more than girls. This gene could be the reason that explains why!

The 3:1 gender ratio between boys and girls also applies to rates of attention deficit disorders, learning disabilities and language disorders.

My Experience/Thoughts

This makes me wonder if the gene that MIGHT be responsible for causing autism, could also be playing a part in other male-dominant disorders. 

As a therapist that has worked with families for many years, I can tell you a pattern that I see with children who are diagnosed with Autism:

  1. Most of the children are boys – in fact, about 95%!
  2. If one child was diagnosed on the spectrum, the second child was also displaying characteristics.
  3. A family member (adult) has symptoms – either diagnosed or undiagnosed. 
  4. Levels of severity ranged from child to child, although the younger child seemed to have a more severe case!

What to do Next

If you feel that your child is struggling or displaying signs/symptoms of a disorder, please mention your concerns to your pediatrician. They may refer you to a speech-language pathologist or neurologist for specific testing. 

We also have many blogs that target specific disorders that may be helpful to you and your child! If you have more questions, please reach out to Speech Blubs and we will get working on answering anything you need clarification on!

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