Autism Challenges American Science to Seek Cure

Ben Fink, who has autism, is part of a study in which he undergoes magnetic-resonance imaging on his brain's wiring, its fibre pathways, at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Ben Fink, who has autism, is part of a study in which he undergoes magnetic-resonance imaging on his brain's wiring, its fibre pathways, at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

In our "Where America Stands" series, CBS News is looking at a broad spectrum of issues facing the country in the new decade.

The struggles of parents and children coping with autism was in focus again when an 11-year-old autistic girl in Florida was found Tuesday in a swamp, incredibly four days after going missing.

Her story had a happy ending, but for millions of children, many challenges remain, CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann reports.

Autism is a brain disorder, typically diagnosed when a child is 2 or 3. Among Americans, it has skyrocketed 600 percent over the last two decades from 1 in 1,500 kids in the 1990's to 1 in 110 kids today and 1 in 70 boys.

Dr. Geraldine Dawson is chief science officer for Autism Speaks, the world's leading autism advocacy group.

"We know that the numbers are increasing," Dawson said. "It's really staggering, and we're still trying to understand why."

With autism, the need dwarfs the U.S. government response. It spends less than $300 million a year on autism research and services, yet the cost of those services and care is $35 billion dollars.

The problem with autism is no one knows for sure why it's increasing.

Like autistic kids, researchers are taking in a lot of information. The challenge is making sense of it all. Until now, they've been able to collect the dots. They just can't seem to connect the dots.

Autism experts say it's not just one disease but many and that they're largely genetic with possible environmental triggers such as toxins or pesticides and still largely a mystery. Autistic people fall on a spectrum of symptoms and severity.

"What's common among all those individuals is that difficulty in the area of social interaction," Dawson said.

As a toddler, Brennan Henderson babbled but wouldn't talk and had frightening tantrums. Adam Peterson was easily rattled, a case of endless crying over spilled milk.

"His initial response to that is anxiety, 'Oh my gosh, something didn't happen the way it was supposed to happen,'" Donna Peterson said

Socially, all autistic kids like Ben Fink have trouble connecting.

"He wants to interact with kids, but he doesn't quite know how," Jonathan Fink said.

Through therapy, all three boys have made great strides, but almost all parents of autistic kids struggle to find help and to understand the disease.

"Everybody has opinions, but there is no course of treatment," said Donna Peterson. "There is no standard of care, and as it is now, we are putting things together like with duct tape and spit."

The Solution

Part of the solution may come at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. There, a lab's testing the DNA of autism in a revolutionary way.

Dr. Hakon Hakonarson is the hospital's director of the Center for Applied Genomics. He's found two-thirds of autistic people share a certain gene mutation.

"If I was able to fix this gene or eliminate it, how many autism cases would then go away?" Hakonarson asked. "That is as high as 15 percent - one-five - 15 percent of cases."

At Children's, Ben Fink and Adam Peterson are both part of more cutting-edge research. For Fink, it's magnetic-resonance imaging done on his brain's wiring, its fibre pathways. Autistic brains don't make needed connections, and Dr. Robert Schultz, the director of the Center for Autism Research, is asking why.

"We are all trying to figure out where are the connections, the most different from a typically developing child," Schultz said. "Ben falls right into the pattern we would expect."

The magnetic-resonance scan shows red "hot spots, indicating the brain's response to social interaction. On Fink's scan, there are no red spots, often the case with autistic children.

In another wing of the hospital, Adam Peterson's part of a different study on how quickly the brain processes sound.

Dr. Tim Roberts said the brains of 8 of every 10 autistic kids respond to a sound as simple as a beep one-hundredth of a second late.

For example, in a casual conversation about Roberts's study, autistic children would be 10 words behind or longer.

"Suddenly they would find complex conversations," said Roberts. "These delays would add up and cascade."

This could be the first imaging bio-marker ever to predict autism, potentially in the first year of life.

At the University of North Carolina, the Henderson family's involved in another study, not Brennan but his 1-year-old brother Samuel.

"They say there might be something going on but it's too early to know decisively," mother Zandra Henderson said.

Siblings of autistic kids have a 20 percent greater chance of being autistic themselves. An infant brain imaging study's focus on changes starts at six months, especially brain enlargement typical of many autistic kids.

Dr. Joe Piven is the director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities.

"It gives us some hope that we can begin to focus on this window of opportunity before that brain enlargement or before that onset of autistic behavior," Piven said.

Until science provides the answers, parents like Donna Peterson hope for a cure.

"If someone told me that I could go to Antarctica and hike up to the highest mountain and there would be a shaman up there with the cure, if I knew that was right, I'd be packing up the dogsled," she said.

"One of the things a human being can't live without is hope," said Jeremy Henderson, father of Brennan and Samuel. "We hold on to hope because that's what gets us through."

  • Mark Strassmann
    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.