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Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder of childhood normally presenting in the first three years of life. The three core areas affected are communication, social interaction and behaviour. Fifty percent of people with autism never develop the ability to speak. Those who do often have abnormalities in their speech and many have social difficulties in communication. Social difficulties are often present in other areas including problems forming friendships and interacting with peers. Autism has been referred to as a disorder of empathy. Affected individuals may have limited insight into the emotional nature of relationaships. Repetitive behaviours are frequently observed. Some individuals may have very particular interests or preoccupations that they pursue and talk about to the exclusion of other activities. Some may use objects in a very repetitive manner and many show a preference for ritual and routine and becoming distressed if these are not adhered to.

A variety of the above and other symptoms are seen in autism and do not necessarily all occur in conjunction. In addition milder forms of the condition may only present with pronounced abnormalities in two of the three core areas. Occasionally family members may also have some of these abnormalities to a lesser degree. Epilepsy is associated in approximately 30% of cases. About half of these cases show an onset in adolescence. Medical causes of autism include tuberous sclerosis, prematurity, infantile rubella. The Fragile X abnormality is associated with autistic tendencies and other chromosomal abnormalities have been described that have autistic traits, e.g. Trisomy of 15q11-q13. The cause of autism remains unclear. Many theories have been put forward including childhood vaccines, mercury poisoning, gluten and casein insensitivity. Most of these theories are as yet unproven. The role of genetic factors in the development of the disorder has been widely investigated. Twin and family studies have shown a recurrence rate among siblings of 3% and concordances between identical twins are between 60-90%. As previously mentioned family members may show several 'autistic' traits. These factors among others support the role of genetics. More recently molecular genetic studies have identified chromosomal regions that seem to be linked with the disorder, in particular regions on Ch2 and Ch7. Several candidate genes have been studied but the results of these studies need to be replicated.

Autism Research Group

The group is lead by Professor Louise Gallagher and based at the Department of Psychiatry and Institute for Molecular Medicine, Trinity Centre for Health Sciences, St James’s Hospital, Dublin. We are a multidisciplinary team of clinicians, post-doctoral research fellows, post-graduate students and research assistants. Our work encompasses clinical assessment, neuropsychology, neurophysiology, neuroimaging, molecular genetics, bioinformatics and functional biology.

  Learn more about the team