The following pages present a selected summary of current and past research into the causes of autism in which Australian researchers are, or have been, involved. Funding has been primarily through the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and more recently the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) Living with Autism.

Psychology and Autism

Autism was initially defined as a psychological/behavioural condition in the 1940s, and it remained very much in the domain of psychologists and psychiatrists, eventually becoming incorporated into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association in DSMIII in 1980. (Prior to that, it was known as Childhood Schizophrenia).
Thus most of the research carried out since those times has focused on:

  • The development of diagnostic tools as it was found that the earlier the diagnosis, the better the chances of obtaining a better outcome in terms of being able to look after the child and manage its behaviour. The diagnostic tools developed over the years have varied, but rely exclusively on behavioural observation.
  • The development of psychological therapies, such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)

Genetics and Autism

In the last 15-20 years, especially since the human genome was sequenced, and the rapid development of new analytical techniques, there has been a remarkable increase in research into the underlying genetic, and possible epigenetic, causes of autism and its co-morbidities. This research is expected to lead to much earlier diagnosis of the condition than is currently possible using the criteria set out in DSM5 (see Autism Definition tab), as well as open up opportunities for more personalised treatment protocols, particularly with regard to autism's frequent co-morbidities, both psychological and physiological.

The Future of Autism

The heterogeneity of autism is a major challenge for the research community, but then so was the nature of the atom in the early 20th century and the sequencing of the human genome in the early 21st century. We are confident that autism will be much better understood by the start of the 22nd century, by which time it will probably have been stratified into a number of different autisms, or labels which may not carry the word autism at all!