Autism is one of the most common developmental disabilities, yet widely misunderstood, both by medical professionals and the community at large. This is part of the reason many individuals with the condition do not receive a correct diagnosis until later in life, and too often fail to get appropriate support.
Such extreme variables make researching the condition difficult, as well. For example, from an insurance perspective, autism support is often limited to early behavioral interventions for children, occupational, speech, and physical therapy. In some cases, carriers allow coverage for talk therapy-style care for adults.
Unfortunately, in terms of research into these targeted interventions, methodological issues have left scientists with few answers and a lot of conflicting information.
Quality, Bias, and Other Concerns
In a meta-analysis of various early intervention studies, researchers uncovered numerous cases of bias, poor methodology, and other obstacles. These included studies that based their results on parental reports, those that exhibited a high risk of bias because the intervention provider was gauging treatment effectiveness, and still more.
Early intervention certainly seems to yield some benefit, but there are many different kinds of support available, practitioner skill varies, and other factors pose challenges to study, not to mention expensive, unreliable tools for families.
Emphasizing Basic Research
Instead of focusing on more variable and often subjective matters like early intervention therapies, researchers are instead turning their attention to basic research, an approach that looks at foundational biological mechanisms to understand bodily processes. This is critical, given that research supported by the Brain Research Foundation established a new baseline case prevalence of 2.64% of the population.
That’s more than the incidence of epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, and ovarian cancer, among many other conditions. Nearly everyone knows someone who’s autistic.
As part of the focus on basic research, scientists have been examining the impact certain genes associated with autism spectrum disorders may have on brain development. One, known as Cullin 3, is regarded as a high-risk gene that can lead to a number of neurological deficits, including poor coordination, as well as certain social and cognitive impairments associated with autism.
This seems to be linked to changes in brain cell migration during development. In turn, that compels certain cells, which should be part of higher-level functions, to remain stuck in other regions of the brain.
Gender Bias, Gender Differences
For many years, autistic women have been pointing to diagnostic bias as a key reason why many girls and women have been overlooked. The diagnostic standards, patients and other advocates have argued, are modeled on a particular subset of boys, which likely led to serious gaps in understanding and support.
Although there is strong evidence for this, it may not be the only issue in play, though. Other research suggests that autism actually develops differently in boys and girls – in a more strictly biological sense.
One of the most marked distinctions the new research has turned up is that, during social interactions, the differences in brain activity between autistic and non-autistic girls is not the same as the differences seen in autistic and non-autistic boys. Girls also showed a greater number of gene variants that may affect the development of the brain known as the striatum, also not seen in boys.
In some senses, these are almost distinct conditions, which makes this one of the interesting challenges with regard to study of multi-genic conditions.
We are still years away from a clear understanding of the biological mechanisms that underlie autism, but the better the condition’s processes are understood, the more targeted interventions and supports can be. Like so much other scientific research, this could be the start of a long journey with much more to discover.
The Subtle Cues in Our Environment that Encourage Healthier Living
The choices we make each day regarding our diet, activity and lifestyle habits ultimately determine our health and wellbeing. Nonetheless, the surroundings we inhabit also actively influence those decisions, whether we realize it or not. Our built environment contains many subtle cues that either promote or impede healthy behaviors. With thoughtful awareness, we can leverage and shape these cues to nudge ourselves toward more positive choices.
Architectural Cues for Active Living
Urban design and infrastructure elements play a major role in our activity levels. Visible, accessible staircases encourage climbing over passive elevator use. Features like centrally located, attractive stairwells bathed in natural light make stairs hard to ignore. Artwork beautifies the ascent while music enlivens acoustics. Placing stairwells near prominent gathering areas also maximizes exposure and use. Conversely, hidden dreary stairwells discourage climbing. Building layouts should make stairways the default for short trips. Thoughtful design embeds activity into daily routines.
Outside, continuous sidewalks and protected bike lanes provide clear cues that active transit is safe and expected. Ample parking signals driving is preferable. Traffic calming measures like speed humps and narrowed lanes imprint mental cautions for vehicles to accommodate bikes and pedestrians. Sidewalk street furniture and plantings buffer walkers from traffic. Crosswalks, pedestrian signals, and refuge islands imprint rights of way. Complete Streets redesign allocates fair space for diverse safe use. Our infrastructure surroundings can literally pave the path for active living.
Office and Home Cues
Subtle factors within buildings also affect activity and diet. Kitchen placement, for instance, affects our choices. Research shows open concept kitchens integrated into living areas encourage more healthful cooking and family meals than closed off kitchens. Islands and open shelving provide visual snack cues that can either prompt cravings or showcase fruits, nuts, and other healthy grabs. Kitchens sited near entries or offices also maximize visibility and food prep use rather than distant basement kitchens.
At offices, centrally located shared spaces like break rooms, cafes and snack nooks encourage communal meals, informal gatherings and refueling walks to retrieve snacks. Providing showers, bike racks and lockers signals active commuting is valued. Standing and treadmill desks prompt movement during sedentary work, while choice architecture guides selections from communal food areas. Simple environmental adjustments nudge better decisions.
Nutritional Cues at Markets and Restaurants
Eateries and markets harbor cues that stimulate cravings along with willpower depletion. Certain lighting, music, and décor stimulate overindulgence. Cues that unconsciously hurry patrons undermine reasoned decisions. Scented air surrounding baked goods stalls awakens salivation and desire. Strategic menu design also sways choices. Listing unhealthy items first or at eye level suppresses willpower. Descriptive names romanticize less healthy options. Menu formatting can also highlight nutritious dishes and portion guidance. Markets use product placement for maximizing impulse grabs. Though subtle, environmental exposures across stores and eateries significantly sway our eating choices.
Cues for Hydration and Rest
Proper hydration and sleep are imperative for our wellbeing but are easily overlooked when immersed in urban settings and schedules. Environmental design can combat these gaps through strategic cues. Plentiful public water fountains provide visual refreshment reminders throughout cities, while placing restrooms near fountains links the hydration notion. Cafes position chilled water dispensers up front for thirst-quenching without calories. Homes and offices forget hydration less with decorative pitchers and glasses on tables. Lighting design is key for sleep cues. Dimming lights in workplaces and warm home lighting provide visual preparation for rest. Cool-toned blue hues stimulate and signal awakening. Our surroundings can cue us to drink and sleep wisely.
Signage and Sensory Cues
Explicit signs offer direct visual cues to healthier behaviors – such as a no smoking sign that prompts at entrances. Staircases could feature plaques tallying burned calories. Cafeterias may display encouragements to take smaller portions or try vegetable sides. Signs foster mindfulness and restraint at choice points. Sensory cues also guide behaviors. Smells eliciting happiness or calm can de-stress environments. Soothing natural sounds and music relax tense settings. Harsh lighting and noise stimulate frenetic energy and impulsiveness. Pleasant sensory experiences invite more mindful, deliberate choices. Uplifting cues infuse healthy messaging into spaces.
Art and Nature Cues for Wellbeing
Artwork carrying uplifting themes or depicting healthy activities, fruits and vegetables, serene nature and joyful gatherings infuses visual positivity into surroundings. Murals and wall graphics remind us what truly matters for wellbeing. Images are digestible in passing, sinking into the subconscious. Vibrant, thriving plants and greenery provide natural visual relief and comfort that lower stress. Decor mimicking natural materials brings warmer textures. Spatial flow mimicking nature’s curves calms minds. Natural light and windows boost mentality and sleep cycle regulation. Thoughtful touches of art and nature foster mental balance, positivity, and healthy choices.
Our everyday surroundings contain many subtle influences on our diet, activity, sleep, and lifestyle, either promoting or hindering health. But heightened awareness of these cues allows us to consciously reshape environments for encouraging wiser choices. Simple changes to architecture, office layouts, signage, lighting, art, and nature contact encourage movement, nutrition, and wellbeing. Our minds absorb ambient cues, so design wisely. When supportive healthy cues surround us, positive habits become a little easier, more inviting, and purposeful. Think about cues you could shift for better living. Small nudges in public spaces and our homes can guide us all toward healthier, more thoughtful lives.
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