Unbalanced view on autism research aired

autism-research-250Theories put forward in the PBS documentary ‘The Autism Enigma’ and aired on Four Corners on ABC 1 on 27th August should not be treated as the end of the story, cautions La Trobe University research centre.

The documentary presents the ‘gut theory’ as the cause of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This theory posits that ASDs are caused by gut bacteria and its by products, and treating the gastrointestinal (GI) conditions of children with ASD can alleviate their symptoms.

La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre strongly cautions against overreliance on this research, stressing that the research is in its early stages and there is much needed replication from other laboratories.

‘The findings to date provide no evidence that bacteria and their by products cause ASDs,’ says Director Cheryl Dissanayake. ‘I’m disappointed that research in the early phases of discovery is receiving this much recognition.’

Like the discredited MMR vaccine theory, the gut theory presented in this program targets those cases of ‘regressive’ autism, whereby young children develop symptoms prior to a period of seemingly typical development.

Regression most commonly occurs between 15- to 20-months of age, and these children tend to have more severe symptoms.

Whether these are the children who are most vulnerable to GI problems remains to be determined, and the argument made in the program that it is the gut microflora that causes the brain changes associated with ASDs remains unsubstantiated.

‘Caution needs to be exercised in implementing treatments based on a theory with an insufficient evidence base,’ says Director Cheryl Dissanayake.

‘In the absence of known causes and cures for ASDs, the best chance of preventing the effects of ASDs on the developing child is very early identification and behaviourally based early intervention.’

Associate Professor Cheryl Dissanayake speaks on behalf of the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre at La Trobe University and the Australasian Society for Autism Research.

A detailed response is available on the centre's website.

Assoc Prof Cheryl Dissanayake
Phone: 0430 882 323
Email: c.dissanayake@latrobe.edu.au