Causes and Etiology of Autism

Apr 19, 2018 | ABA and Autism

Our Section provides scientifically sound background information about Autism, such as what causes it, and what the different diagnoses mean.

Causes and Etiology of Autism

Autism and the other disorders in the autism spectrum are behaviorally defined syndromes that are now generally regarded to be of neurobiological origin.

Autism is not caused by inappropriate parenting or other psychosocial variables in the home life of the developing child.

The specific underlying psychological or neuro-physiological mechanisms are simply not known. Although a number of different theories have been put forward, none has withstood closer scrutiny. Probably several causes and etiological pathways lead to disorders in the autism spectrum. There is no reason to suppose there is only one pathway. The search must continue.

How can Neurobiological Disorders be Treated by Behavioral Methods?

It’s wrong to believe that if a condition is biological in origin, there is nothing that can be done.

Persons with biological differences need specially-designed opportunities to maximize their potentials. The worst effects of autism can be prevented in many cases. It is now known that early, intensive behavioral programs can eliminate completely the symptoms of autism in some children and greatly improve the lives of many others.

[See studies by Lovaas (1987), McEachin, Smith and Lovaas (1993) and Smith, Eikeseth, Klevstrand & Lovaas (1997). Refer to Autism Bibliography.]

Niemann (1996) writes:

“Fortunately, recent discoveries in the way the brain develops, from the moment of conception and during the early years, provide greater insights into the construction timetable of the human brain and the capacities and limitations imposed on behavioural and other interventions. Rather than being seen as a static event, it is important to keep in mind that the development of the brain is a dynamic process that is constantly evolving and changing in concert with the environment in which the child is placed. The limiting factors are both the biological structure of the brain as well as the environment. Limiting either one will compromise human potential. Conversely, enriching both will enhance the road to developing an individual’s full potential.” (p. 7)

The purpose of Niemann’s article is to compare what is known about neurodevelopment, neurodevelopment of children with autism and the development of memory with the results of behavioral research showing dramatic changes in the behavior of young autistic children. He finds them to be compatible. He finds that early intensive behavioral programs that begin with many repetitions and frequent reinforcement and then move on to higher order skills follow the course of brain development. There’s much more to be learned of course.

In his recent discussion of nature-nurture, Rutter (1997) considers the development of anti-social behavior. He, too, joins what appears a growing consensus that environment and biology operate interdependently, that maturation is influenced greatly by the stimulation received from the environment, and that research and discussion should be collaborative rather than antagonistic.

People who do not actively interact with other people are deprived of learning from social experiences. People who focus all of their attention on the same things and activities are not optimizing their chances for development and learning. People who do these things most of the time are called “autistic.” Therefore, they need specially prepared programs that will teach them to learn from their parents, siblings, peers and others. These are the initial aims of behavioral interventions.

Although the most dramatic results have been achieved with pre-school children, programs in teaching social skills and learning by observation (imitation) are also applicable to

  • school age children,
  • adolescents, and
  • adults.