What You Should Know about Autism and Air Pollution in Utah

What You Should Know about Autism and Air Pollution in Utah

A lot of people in Utah have questions about autism and air pollution. For good reason, too. Due in part to the unique contours of our valleys, most Utah population centers struggle with air pollution. And next to New Jersey—another state not known for clean air—Utah has the highest rates of autism in the country. What’s more, while the evidence is still not conclusive, there is a growing body of research that suggests air pollution is a risk factor for autism.

Now, it’s important to note that nobody is saying air pollution causes autism. Like many other mental disorders, autism is associated with a tapestry of genetic and environmental factors none of which are the actual biological cause of autism. Hopefully when the day comes that we do understand what causes autism, it will lead to a medical revolution that rivals the polio vaccine. For now, people who study autism rates are more likely to talk about the “risk factors of autism,” not the causes, and this represents a more accurate way to think about the issue.

Take Action, Keep Perspective

The research suggests that air pollution may double the risk of autism. But there are a couple different ways to cite this statistic. Instead of a one percent chance of autism, there’s a two percent chance. So even parents who live in an area with high air pollution have only a small chance of having a child with autism. On the other hand, doubling the risk of autism also equates to approximately 500 more Utah children each year who will receive an autism diagnosis. Thus, it’s a public health issue worthy of the attention it’s getting.

But what can you do for your own family? Uprooting the household and “moving into the mountains” for nine months because “air pollution causes autism” is an overreaction. Yet, we do recommend following the extra precautions given to young children and pregnant women about being outside during times of peak pollution. An air purifier for the home may be a sound investment, too. And not just for autism: Air pollution is a risk factor for a number of different health hazards, including suicide. But for those who are prone to anxiety, the most important thing at the end of the day may simply be to manage, as much as possible, how much you worry.

Compassion, Understanding, and Help for Families

While it may be a good idea to take simple, preventative measures that stand to improve the odds of a child’s healthy development, dumb luck may still be the biggest factor. Just as there are a ton of parents who never bother with air purifiers or staying indoors and have completely healthy children, there are plenty of parents who “do everything right” and still have a child with autism. Assigning blame for individual cases of autism is flawed and unconstructive.

It’s also worth remembering that autism is actually autism spectrum disorder. And, as the name implies, the disorder has a range of potential symptoms and severity levels. There is plenty of support and insight to be gained from other parents, but there is no single face of autism, no one story that fits every child or family. This is also why the best possible outcomes generally come from a collaboration between parents, school, and health officials in determining ABA therapy and other support services in Utah. A parent can provide the intimate knowledge of the everyday experience with the child, while a mental health professional can perform a clinical assessment. A more detailed picture of the child’s development then emerges followed by a personalized treatment plan that can improve this development and quality of life.

The Good Side of the Story for Utah

Given the diagnostic rates and research about autism and air pollution, it would be easy to cast dispersions on the state of Utah. But, here, too, the picture is not very clear. More recently, autism rates in Utah seem to be leveling off, while other states are catching up. A lot of the perceived increase in autism rates—it’s not an epidemic—is more likely improved diagnostic criteria and intervention services, while the actual rates of autism has been largely stable over the last few decades.

To this point, Utah has the lowest rate of autism cases being identified solely a child’s teacher, a sign that Utah parents and pediatricians may be more adept at recognizing the early symptoms of autism. And the state’s strengths don’t stop with early diagnosis. Utah is also a leader in autism research and treatment programs nationwide.

Marcus Pickett

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