To help a child with autism, avoid getting trapped in fruitless searches for cause or cure

If you know a child with autism, chances are you’ve grappled with questions about its cause and cure.
Maybe you looked for explanations for how autism hijacks a child’s development.
Or you could have sought treatments that would return a child to normalcy.
The sheer volume of news about the condition may lead you to think that medicine has answers. Like so many touched by autism, you may end up disappointed to find more questions than answers.
With scant knowledge of its cause, a cure is far away. But we do know more about its rise. This spring, a study by the United States Centers for Disease Control found that 1 in 88 children have an autism spectrum disorder—the rate doubled in under a decade! Experts are debating key questions: are we just more willing to diagnose? Or has the number of kids with the condition actually increased?
These issues make headlines, but they’re not what matter most to families and friends of someone diagnosed with autism. Yes, the CDC findings might help you feel less alone in facing challenges. More broadly, knowing the numbers affected may help advocate for needed resources. Yet when it comes to figuring out what to do when a child is diagnosed, we need more immediately practical advice.

So here’s some advice you can put to use right away, whether you’re a parent or want to help one. Don’t get stuck in the trap of seeking an explanation for how the child got autism. Most of us will never know. Certainly, parents should get genetic tests if they can. The results may suggest treatments to try, or highlight genetic risks in having more children.
Once you’ve done this, don’t spend time on unanswerable questions. It won’t help you help the child. One mother searching for an explanation for her son’s autism was told that it was caused by “maternal fetal insult”—but that little was known about how to avoid “insulting” her next child!
So, parents, you have our permission to deflect questions about how your child got autism or to account for its rise. It’s not your job to explain the headlines or the scientific issues. Instead, turn the conversation to something more useful. Start talking about how others can support the many practical interventions that your community and family can undertake now to help your child learn, develop, and live a better life.

— Anjali Sastry and Blaise Aguirre

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