Autism And The Immune System: What’s The Take-Home Message For Parents?

Last week, an essay was published in the New York Times describing the hypothesis that one of the causes of autism involves a dysfunction in the immune system. In this opinion piece, autism was described as an inflammatory disease that starts during gestation (in the womb). The author speculated that 1 in 3 cases of autism may be due to mechanisms relating to problems with the immune system. 

This line of research is certainly being pursued. Autism Speaks, for example, published a news report in response to the opinion piece, in which they discussed how they have, and continue, to support research that examines the role of the immune system as one of the pathways that may influence the development of autism. That said, they make two very important points:

1) Researchers disagree on the extent to which immune system dysfunction actually is a cause of autism – it may be that the immune system responds to brain and developmental changes that are due to other causes

2) There is currently no evidence that treatments for autism that are rooted in treating an immune system dysfunction are effective – though some are under study

I would add the following:

3) There is no definitive evidence that 1 in 3 cases in autism is due to immune system dysfunction, and as of now there are no diagnostic tests that would screen for this with precision

It’s important that science gets discussed in the popular press, and that parents have an opportunity to become informed on the latest thinking and research. However, opinion pieces – like the one in the New York Times – should (in my own opinion) present a more balanced viewpoint that accurately assesses the landscape (including divergent or more tempered opinions) and the real implications for parents right now. Without that, parents who read these pieces may come away with take-home messages that are not really accurate.

Having a child who has been diagnosed with autism changes a parent’s life. Theories come and theories go – and the realities of the difficulty in elucidating the causes of autism persist. When introducing relatively new ideas into the mainstream, I would hope that authors would exercise more caution with their viewpoints, and understand that, in the end, parents just want to know where things really stand – with more grounding and less hyperbole.

Immune system background via


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