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University of Utah and Brigham Young University researchers have made significant progress in the effort to understand the molecular underpinnings of autism.

University of Utah and Brigham Young University researchers have made significant progress in the effort to understand the molecular underpinnings of autism. While their work has yielded biological insights, it also underscores the transformative power of compassionate health care practices.

Autism is, by many counts, a poorly understood and clinically ambiguous diagnosis. Doctors and researchers affirm the diagnosis falls along a spectrum of symptoms, ranging from low functioning to high functioning. The cause of autism, and the reason for its variation amidst common traits, is not known. In the vacuum left by the absence of certainty, some have sought to place blame on unproven causes. For example, a strong anti-vaccination movement took off in the United States in an effort to link vaccination to autism.

An estimated 1 in 59 United States children will receive an autism diagnosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, yet its prevalence hasn’t led to copious amounts of research. “They've been neglected in research — they've been really neglected. Especially in brain imaging research,” Mikle South, senior author on the study and professor of psychology and neuroscience at BYU, told the Deseret News.

Autism has only recently received attention and funding in the field of clinical medical research. Unfortunately, the lack of funding or expertise in this area has created a cycle of minimal investment and poor clinical results. However, the autism study conducted by Utah and BYU researchers offers a new path forward for research on the disorder.

The study took MRI scans of both non-verbal and verbal autistic youths, a historically difficult task because many autistic children don’t respond well to remaining motionless in a clinical environment and being surrounded by a giant magnet.

Researchers were highly attentive to the individualized needs of each study participant. They sought to increase comfort and mitigate overwhelming stimuli by designing the study to help kids feel comfortable with parental touch, accompanying stuffed animals and an earpiece offering soothing encouragement available to participants who struggle to sit still in the scan. By offering compassionate, individualized health care, the researchers unlocked new insights.

The study reports an unprecedented look at the neural connections in the brains of youths across the spectrum. The new imaging could bolster future research focused on tapping into the strengths of autistic individuals.

Which, in the end, is the goal of compassionate, holistic care. “We can … ameliorate or moderate some of the downsides these kids face, the challenges these kids face, to allow their strengths to manifest themselves more clearly," South said.

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Helping individuals access and utilize their strengths while mitigating the challenges in a spirit of compassion is a promising pattern of care that can help not only autistic youths, but also drug-related addicts and those facing mental illness.

Society now knows more about the brain differences between people diagnosed on opposing ends of the autism spectrum — enabling a greater understanding of how autism appears molecularly in the brain.

But this study should also serve as a reminder that better health care looks beyond the nearsighted and expands the possibilities of help and healing.