In recent years, the conversation around autism has gotten a lot louder and more pronounced, helped in part by the whole debacle about its alleged links to vaccinations. While there is no proof that vaccines are in any way linked to autism, there appears to be an increased interest in this condition.
Autism itself is not a single disease. Rather, it is a spectrum of behavioral disorders associated with various underlying conditions. The scientific and medical understand of autism is still in its infancy. Autism is characterized by impaired social interactions, communications (both verbal and nonverbal) as well as repetitive behavior. What little we know today about autism reveals that it has both genetic and environmental causes.
One of the environmental causes of autism is believed to be the lack of psychosocial interaction as babies. Psychosocial interactions involve socializing with adults and other children, through speech and touch. Psychosocial interaction is terribly important in the mental and emotional development of children, as has been shown by numerous studies previously.
An interesting study was performed in Romania recently, involving orphaned children who lived in state-run institutions. Romania was freed of a repressive communist regime with the fall of President Ceaușescu in 1989, and international aid soon flooded the country, with some aid workers focusing on the country’s 170,000 orphans living in state-run orphanages.
These orphans, especially the infants, were very much deprived of human contact during Ceaușescu’s regime. They were all placed into cribs that were packed into whitewashed rooms. They were fed regularly and their diapers changed, but otherwise, there was little or no attention given by nurses or other staff members.
Studies that have only concluded in these past few years reveal that even though these babies were later adopted by loving and stable homes, about 10% of them developed quasi-autistic patterns later on in life, particularly repetitive behavior and difficulties with social interaction.
One such study that links deprivation of psychosocial interaction in infancy to autistic behavior later on in life is the Bucharest Early Intervention Project co-led by Charles Nelson of the Boston Children’s Hospital. They’re tracking 136 Romanian orphans, half of which were sent to good foster care around age 2, while the other half continued to live in state-run institutions. All of the children were deprived of attention as infants, such as having their cries ignored, and not having any toys to play with.The lack of stimulation and interaction meant that these children developed repetitive habits as babies, such as shaking their fists, rocking and hand flapping.
All the children who were adopted into foster care left the orphanages after the age of two, and they soon lost their repetitive behavior, most commonly by age 5. This was a direct result of them being in close contact with their foster parents.
Difficulties in social interaction, however, were found to persist until the children were well into their teens, and they had various issues like difficulties in making friends, extreme behavior like hugging strangers and being unable to relate to their peers. Surprisingly, this happened in both orphans that grew up in foster families, as well as those who grew up in the orphanages. Although none of these children could be clearly diagnosed as autistic, their behavior has been classified as very similar.
This study is a landmark finding of how the environment and circumstances children grow up in can influence the way they turn out later in life, and how children can develop autism-like behavior patterns when deprived of attention, interaction and stimulation when they’re infants. It’s also a lesson to all parents and caregivers out there that close and loving contact with babies is essential for them to grow up healthy and strong, both mentally and physically.
Gentle reminder: The information on this article is not meant to replace a qualified healthcare professional and should not be considered as professional advice. Please seek appropriate medical help when necessary.