There was an article recently publicized in the media about facial differences of children with autism. The study’s author, Kristina Aldridge remarked that ASD children have beautiful eyes. I, personally have often thought that ASD children are quite beautiful especially their very long eyelashes. My son has those. On the other hand, I would never say they have similar facial features nor are they easily identified by appearance. One child with autism is one child with autism. And one beautiful face is not the cookie cutter of another beautiful face.
The point of the article was to support the idea that autism may arise in very early embryological development. Apparently, the face develops during the second and third month of pregnancy in concert with brain development. If you want to see the changes, watch this interesting, short video:
The study pinpoints 17 measurements taken of 64 boys on the spectrum who manifest the same changes in facial features all of which differ from 41 neurotypical boys whose features were also measured. The study showed that the ASD children had wider eyes, and a “broader upper face,” compared with typically developing children. According to the study, children with autism also had a shorter middle region of the face – including the nose and cheeks – as well as a wider mouth and philtrum, the divot between nose and lip.
The researchers said that knowing the point in time when these changes occur could lead to identifying a genetic cause, a window of time when the embryo may be susceptible to an environmental factor or both. I guess the idea is that, by identifying the time when structural differences in the face manifest themselves this will somehow narrow the scope of further research into finding the cause of autism?
I’m no student of neuroscience or embryology nor would I pretend to be. But my first reaction to this is that just because you can identify when something develops, if it is genetically based, I don’t see how this narrows the scope or brings anyone any closer to discovering the cause of autism. There are between 30,000 and 40,000 genes in the human body. There are 3 billion bits of DNA in each human cell.
Autism is a spectrum. Because autism can be anything from high functioning to severe, there are more likely than not, multiple genetic and/or environmental bases for its occurrence. Just because we might, by this study, know a when, i.e., that it develops in utero and is genetically based, does not make it easier to determine how it occurs or where within our genetic makeup it occurs. I just don’t see the connection between the study and the word “progress”.
In fact, I don’t want to go all histrionic with use of the word “eugenics” but it does come to mind in relation to this article. Now, I’m not saying anything about the researchers having anything but purely scientific motivations (or not) but I can see how this “study” could lead down that path. And that bothers me.
I also find it troublesome solely on the basis that this study involved physiological appearance. A three dimensional scan of children to map their faces and then measure their facial features. It’s plausible that this could be a study to determine whether differences somehow tie in to craniofacial development as it relates to autism. Yet, I’m dubious of how the two tie to each other.
In fact, there is a whole separate field of medical/dental professionals who are working with craniofacial issues and genetics through The FaceBase Project. They are trying to determine the genetics related to craniofacial development for purposes completely unrelated to autism (such as cleft lips). In reviewing the discussion of the FaceBase Project I learned that “much research is needed to achieve a molecular and cellular understanding of the mechanisms by which genes and gene products interact to generate complex phenotypes.” This says – to me- that no one knows, at this point, what genes are involved in craniofacial development. How can measuring a face and attempting a tie in to craniofacial development help discover a cause of autism without knowledge of what genes are even involved in craniofacial development? Without that knowledge, and without empirical evidence of a tie in between autism and facial development, such a “study”, with such paltry numbers, yields nothing of value at all.
As far as this data goes, who is to say that these facial measurements are nothing more than a comorbid condition, like sensory processing disorder and autism or autism and seizures? They exist together but are separate entities in themselves. My admittedly unscientific conclusion on the whole thing is that that this autism study has no utility now or for the foreseeable future. More importantly, it leaves a bitter aftertaste on my sensibility.
The only useful information I actually derived from this information is learning just how vastly complex the areas of genetic research are and how little we know. A bonus? I found that Audrey Hepburn had the best quote about beautiful eyes:
“For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.”
After all, they both have beautiful eyes.