What Causes Autism? Understanding the Latest Research

Hanna Rue, Ph.D., BCBA-D, chief clinical officer

What does science say about what causes autism? The latest research indicates that a combination of genetic and environmental factors likely causes it.

There’s no simple answer, and scientists are still trying to develop better ones. “What caused my child’s autism? Was I to blame?” As David G. Amaral, Ph.D., a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at the University of California Davis wrote in 2017 in the journal Cerebrum, “Autism research has made tremendous progress over the last 20 years, but yet we still can’t provide definitive answers to most of these questions.”

What We Know for Sure

What we know for sure is that autism is a complex condition. It’s not caused by one single factor. The exact cause is still not fully understood, making it a subject of ongoing research.

Much of that research involves two main categories:

  1. Genetic factors: Scientists have found that certain gene changes, unusual gene combinations, and other genetic conditions can make a person more likely to have autism.
  2. Environmental factors: Since genetic factors don’t always lead to autism, that suggests that environmental factors could play a role. That could include factors, such as prenatal exposure to certain drugs or chemicals, complications during birth, or advanced parental age at the time of conception.

What Myths about Autism Science Has Debunked

Science has debunked several myths about autism, most notably the claim that vaccines cause autism. Large-scale studies have proven this theory to be false. Other debunked myths include the idea that autism is caused by parenting style or that it’s a mental health disorder. Autism is actually a neurological disorder resulting from differences in brain development.

It’s also worth noting that the prevalence of autism is rising, but this doesn’t necessarily mean more people are becoming autistic. An article in Scientific American explains that the bulk of the increase in autism rates stems from growing awareness of autism and better diagnostic methods.

Where Research Is Headed

The latest research in autism focuses on understanding the genetic and neurological aspects of the condition. Studies are further examining the perceptions of counselors in treating children with autism, which could help improve therapeutic approaches.

Other research is debunking more myths about vaccination risks related to autism. Still other researchers are looking into the intersection of autism in adulthood and the LGBTQ+ community. And some new research is looking into how certain proteins associated with autism interact with other molecules, shaping synaptic plasticity.

Our Understanding of Autism Is Evolving

Yet the most basic question — “What caused my child’s autism?” — may have no simple answer. Little by little, our understanding of what causes autism is evolving.

It’s becoming clearer that the causes of autism are multifaceted. While we might not have all the answers now, we are continuing to unravel the complexities of autism.

The Autism Diagnosis Process: What to Expect

When it comes to parenting, the unknown can be one of the hardest parts. Worries creep in if you suspect something’s wrong with your child’s development. If you think your child may be showing signs of autism, there’s no guidebook to tell you what to do next.

It’s natural to feel overwhelmed. The process gets easier when you know what to expect.

If you’ve found your way to this post, you’ve likely taken the first step: questioning whether your child shows signs of autism.

Recognizing this possibility is a significant and sometimes challenging move. Rest assured, you’re not alone. This guide is here to provide you with valuable insights and support as you navigate through this process.

Understanding Autism

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects how a person interacts, learns, and behaves. Everyone on the spectrum is different. Signs of autism usually start showing up when a child is very young.

Recognizing the Symptoms

Autism symptoms can be different for everyone. If your child is not growing or learning like other kids their age, or if they have any of the following signs, you might want to talk to your pediatrician:

  • Not smiling at others by six months
  • Not gesturing or pointing to communicate by 12 months
  • Not babbling by 12 months
  • Not using single words like “no,” “mama,” “dada” by 16 months
  • Not using two-word phrases like “want cup,” “go play” by 24 months
  • Not responding to sounds, voices, or their own name by three years
  • Poor eye contact by three years
  • Little interest in other children or caretakers by three years
  • Losing skills they once had at any point by three years

The Diagnosis Process

Getting a diagnosis of autism starts with an evaluation. Experts will examine how a child behaves and will look at their past development. If your child’s pediatrician thinks it might be autism, they’ll send your child to an expert for a closer look. This process includes:

  • A parent interview
  • Review of medical, psychological, and school records
  • Assessment of cognitive, developmental, and adaptive functioning skills
  • Observation of your child during play

What Happens Next?

After an autism evaluation, our team of specialists will review and interpret the results. If your child is diagnosed with autism, our team will work with you to create a personalized treatment plan. This plan includes therapies to help improve communication, social skills, and behavior.

At LEARN, we work with families on a plan tailored to your family’s needs. We will adjust the treatment plan as needed. We’ll also provide you with resources and support.

Whether you’re just noticing signs or you’re already deep into the diagnosis process, our team is here to help. We know that recognizing and diagnosing autism can be challenging. But with the right support and guidance, you can navigate it confidently.

Shaping the Future: Influential Women in Autism and ABA Therapy

March is Women’s History Month. It’s a time to celebrate the accomplishments of women in all walks of life.

In the area of autism and contemporary applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, many women have made a lasting mark. They’ve broken barriers. They’ve conducted significant research, and they’ve paved the way for better understanding and treatment of autism.

Today, we spotlight seven women who have shown us what it means to lead with passion, dedication, and commitment. They are making a difference, and their work continues to inspire future generations of women in the field.

1. Temple Grandin: The Trailblazing Voice in Autism Advocacy

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., is a name synonymous with autism advocacy. Born in 1947, she was diagnosed with autism in early childhood. Despite the challenges, she went on to become an esteemed academic and animal behaviorist. She has gained recognition for writing books and delivering speeches on autism and animal behavior. Today, she is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

2. Greta Thunberg: Championing Climate Action and Autism Acceptance

Greta Thunberg is a Swedish environmental activist. She has gained global recognition for her efforts to fight climate change. She’s also known for being openly autistic. She has referred to her autism as her “superpower,” and has discussed how it has helped her in her activism by allowing her to focus intensely on topics that interest her. Greta has used her platform to advocate for acceptance and understanding of autism. On her Facebook page, she identifies herself as an “Autistic climate justice activist.”

3. Breanna Clark: Shattering World Records and Autism Stereotypes

Breanna Clark is an American Paralympic athlete who was diagnosed with autism at age 4. She competes in T20 category races, a classification for athletes with intellectual impairments. She has represented athletes with autism on an international stage. Off the track, she’s been an advocate and role model for people with autism.

4. Ronit Molko: A Powerful Force in Autism Therapy and Entrepreneurship

Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D, is another luminary in the field. She is a thought leader and subject matter expert in autism spectrum disorder, developmental disabilities, and behavioral healthcare. She co-founded Autism Spectrum Therapies (acquired by Learn It Systems) and is a LEARN Behavioral board member. In this All Autism Talk podcast, she talks about how ongoing research is helping us better understand the unique challenges girls with autism face.

5. Devon Sundberg: Shaping the Future of ABA Therapy and Autism Awareness

Devon Sundberg, MS, BCBA, co-founded the Behavior Analysis Center for Autism (BACA). She has made significant contributions to the field of behavior analysis, both through her work at BACA and as the founder of the Women in Behavior Analysis conference. In this All Autism Talk podcast, she shares how raising three daughters helped open her eyes to how gendered life can be — and about the need for more women in the autism field.

6. Hanna Rue: Pioneering Innovations in Autism Treatment and Research

Hanna Rue, Ph.D., BCBA-D, is chief clinical officer for LEARN Behavioral. Her research interests are broad and include the identification of evidence-based practices for the treatment of autism. Her influence in the field of autism is evident in her wide-ranging work that spans clinical care, research, and advocacy. She has made significant contributions to STEM fields, sharing her insights through various platforms, including top-performing podcast episodes about autism, and extending her influence and reach in the autism community.

7. Sabrina Daneshvar: Revolutionizing the Field with Innovation and Compassion

Sabrina Daneshvar, Ph.D., BCBA-D, serves as the senior vice president of clinical services at LEARN Behavioral. Her research interests include video modeling and teaching social skills. This work has contributed to developing innovative strategies for improving social skills in children with autism. Sabrina has also taught, mentored, and trained many graduate students pursuing their degrees.

These are just a few women who have helped to shape the field of autism and ABA therapy. Their work underscores the importance of early intervention, peer support, and recognizing the diverse signs and symptoms of autism in girls and women.

We celebrate these women and everyone who has made contributions to advance our understanding of autism. They provide hope and inspiration to countless families across the world affected by it.

Advancing Autism Services: Our Commitment to Public Policy

Written by Dr. Ashley Williams, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA-D, Vice President

National Social Justice Day is a time to reflect on the progress made in creating a more equitable and inclusive society. At LEARN Behavioral, this commitment goes beyond the confines of our therapy rooms; it extends into the heart of public policy advocacy. Our dedication to social justice is evident through our active involvement in various organizations and our continuous efforts to champion policies that support the autism community.

1. Advocating for Autism Services Nationwide

LEARN Behavioral is proud to be an active member of the Council for Autism Service Providers (CASP). Our leadership team actively participates as CASP Special Advocacy Group Leaders in 11 states where LEARN Behavioral operates. This engagement allows us to contribute firsthand to the shaping of policies that impact individuals with autism and their families. Additionally, our membership in the National Coalition for Access to Autism Services (NCAAS) underscores our commitment to addressing state and federal barriers to autism services. By collaborating with like-minded organizations, we strive to create a unified voice advocating for positive change on a broader scale.

2. Advancing Autism Equity Through State Organizations

At LEARN Behavioral, we understand the importance of grassroots efforts in promoting social justice. Our active involvement in local trade and professional organizations, including CalABA, BABAT, WAPA, ORABA, MAC, MIBAP, reflects our dedication to the larger behavior analytic community. Through volunteering and membership in these organizations, we aim to contribute to the development of equitable services for the diverse communities we serve. We believe that fostering connections within the behavioral community is crucial to creating a more inclusive and supportive environment for all.

3. Leading National Advocacy Efforts for Autism Policy Reform

LEARN Behavioral is fortunate to have resident experts in public policy who actively contribute to the
advancement of the autism community. LEARN leaders have published peer-reviewed journal articles on
public policy, presented at local and national conferences, and provided numerous testimonies
advocating for access to care. Our chief clinical officer, Dr. Hanna Rue, is a beacon of leadership in this
regard. Her participation in NCAAS’s “day on the hill” in Washington, D.C., exemplifies our commitment
to effecting change at the highest levels. By engaging with House and Senate offices, we strive to
influence initiatives that positively impact the autism community on a national scale.

4. LEARN Advocacy Network

The LEARN Advocacy Network, led by Dr. Rebecca Thompson, is a vital part of LEARN Behavioral’s public policy efforts, providing a monthly meeting ground for leaders from each state. Driving our advocacy initiatives, this collaborative team engages in meaningful discussions, sharing insights, and staying abreast of the latest developments in public policy. The network serves as a platform where LEARN Behavioral leaders exchange information, ensuring a well-coordinated and informed approach to navigating the complex landscape of policy initiatives.

As we observe National Social Justice Day, it is imperative to recognize the multifaceted approach LEARN Behavioral takes to contribute to a more just and equitable society. Through active participation in national and state organizations, as well as championing public policy initiatives, we are dedicated to making a lasting impact. Our commitment to social justice extends beyond our therapeutic interventions, reflecting our belief in the power of advocacy and policy to create positive change for individuals with autism and their families.

The Advances and Challenges of DEI Initiatives in ABA

Brandon Whitfield, Sr. Clinical Director for AST, part of LEARN Behavioral has presented at several conferences including BABA’s (Black Applied Behavior Analysts) inaugural conference to share ways ABA agencies can bring more equity to the field of ABA. In this conversation, Brandon discusses his role in helping to create The Black Master’s cohort and mentorship program as well as the ongoing need to prioritize DEI advancement in ABA. 

For more information: 

https://learnbehavioral.com/culture

https://learnbehavioral.com/culture/dei

Self-Care and Sensory Needs for Neurodivergent Individuals

Dr. Megan Anna Neff, a Neurodivergent Psychologist joins us to discuss discovering her own autism in the aftermath of her child’s diagnosis and how that has inspired her passion to support the neurodivergent community. Dr. Neff describes the experience of her autism revelation in this way, “For the first time in my life, my body made sense, my experience of self made sense, and it was a powerful moment of liberation.” We also delve into helpful strategies about sensory sensitivity and self-care that are helpful for adults and parents of children with autism.

For more information:

neurodivergentinsights.com

@neurodivergent_insights on Instagram

All Autism Talk (https://www.allautismtalk.com/) is sponsored by LEARN Behavioral (https://learnbehavioral.com).

How ABA Therapy Helped Our Children Succeed: Insights from Two BCBA Moms


In this informative video, two Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) moms, Heather and Trisha, share their personal experiences with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy and how it has helped their children succeed. For more information about our ABA Therapy services, visit: https://lrnbvr.com/yt-aba-moms

A Fresh Approach: Empowering Children with Autism

Written by Alison Spanoghe, Behavior Analyst, Autism Spectrum Therapies (AST)

When I first started working in a school system with children on the autism spectrum in the early 2000s, my leaders told me to stick to my instructions — no matter what. They told me this would be best for the children in the long run. As a newbie, I followed orders.

Often, though, that approach led to anger, tears, and resistance from the children who needed my help the most. Despite science backing up the “follow-my-orders” approach, it didn’t always feel “right.”

Today, my approach has evolved to something called “assent-based practice.” It’s a model that puts an end to instruction through coercion. It prioritizes the child’s agreement to participate in therapy rather than mandating that they follow orders.

The Old Way: Extinction

If you’re familiar with applied behavior analysis (ABA), you may have come across the term “extinction.” In simple terms, extinction means not reinforcing a previously reinforced behavior. The aim is to reduce the chances of that behavior happening again.

Let’s say your TV remote stops working. After a while, you’ll stop pressing the power button and maybe look for batteries or ask for help instead. The same principle applies to ABA services. If a certain behavior — like screaming — is not encouraged, the child will eventually stop doing it. You could then teach them a better way to communicate their needs instead of screaming.

While that might be good in theory, behavior isn’t always that straightforward. Also, the extinction approach can sometimes lead to other issues, like longer tantrums, aggression, or even distrust toward caregivers. That’s where assent-based practice comes in.

The New Way: Assent-Based Practice

Assent-based practice focuses on making sure the child agrees to take part in therapy — even if that agreement is nonverbal. When a child is actively engaged, that’s one indication that they are communicating that they agree with participating in treatment.

This type of approach involves:

  • Constant check-ins
  • Respecting when the child no longer wants to participate in treatment
  • Adapting the approach based on the child’s response
  • Teaching the child to communicate

The goal of this technique is to equip children with autism with skills that are useful in any situation. It also helps them advocate for themselves and make it clear when they want to say “no.” It’s more of a compassionate way of providing care.

Why Assent-Based Practice?

There are many benefits to using assent-based practice. It can:

  • Build Trust: It helps establish a safe and trusting relationship between the child and the therapist.
  • Promote Expression: The child learns that they are seen and heard. It encourages them to express their feelings.
  • Respect Autonomy: The child’s “no” is respected, promoting their dignity and independence.
  • Enhance Learning: This approach avoids standoffs. It allows more reinforcement of language use and engagement in the session.

Assent-based practice has become a popular topic in ABA services. It emphasizes getting the child’s agreement before continuing therapy. It teaches children to express their feelings. It also respects their dignity and independence.

Therapists can use this approach with any child at any time, leading to faster learning and better rapport with the child. While our understanding of assent-based practice continues to evolve, it is a worthwhile approach to consider because it puts the child first.

Alison Spanoghe is a behavior analyst with Autism Spectrum Therapies (AST).

Back To School Tips for Parents of Kids with Autism

Jessica Sylfest is the parent of a child with Autism and ADHD and the Sr. Director of  Talent Acquisition for LEARN Behavioral. Jessica’s compassion, warmth, and learned wisdom are great offerings to all parents as we transition our kids back to school. There are a lot of specific strategies shared when navigating an IEP and how to establish good communication with your child’s team. As Jessica said, “I think there is such value in sharing experiences and sharing things that are going well and things that are a  struggle. You really never stop preparing. It’s just perpetual communication, planning with the school and with the other resources in our lives.”

To watch more podcast episodes visit www.allautismtalk.com