As the number of individuals diagnosed with autism over the years has increased, there has been light shown on links between multiple diagnoses for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), one link being between autism and cancer. At the surface, it would seem that these two diagnoses would be unrelated.
Autism symptoms can be comorbid with other diagnoses like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, etc. There have also been links that can exist between cancer and autism, as well as other diagnoses.
This article is going to discuss:
- Possible links between ASD and cancer
- What role genetics may play
- Cancer treatment options for those with ASD
I can say that I was surprised to find out that there may be a connection between these two diagnoses. It is important to note that there is so much information available on this subject and the information that is in this article is only a portion.
We recommend that parents and caregivers do their research and ask questions, especially if they are concerned about their autistic child. The information within this article may only cover a small portion of autistic individuals, everyone is different and some of this information may not apply to them or just scratch the surface of information available.
Is it genetics?
There have been discussions and research conducted on whether autism is specifically genetic or if there are other aspects that can cause the symptoms of individuals diagnosed with ASD. According to the article, Autism and Cancer, environmental factors may also play a part in the social and emotional skills and regulation, as well as some repetitive behaviors that are typically associated with autism.
For those individuals diagnosed with different cancers, there have also been both environmental and genetic factors that can contribute. Kaylee James states,
“While autism spectrum disorder and cancer may appear entirely unrelated, there is actually a significant amount of overlap within the genetic components associated with each condition. Gabrielli, Manzardo, and Butler actually specify that cancer and autism may share some genetic structure (2019). Furthermore, within their research, approximately 800 genes were linked to autism spectrum disorder and approximately 3,500 genes were linked to various cancers. In total, 138 of these genes were shared between the two.”
These numbers are both fascinating and alarming, because out of all the genes involved, 138 genes are shared between autism spectrum disorder and cancer risk. That doesn’t automatically mean that individuals with ASD have a chance of developing cancer however.
The cancer diagnoses that seemed to occur more often among the autistic community were kidney, pancreatic, thyroid, and brain cancers, according to the Autism and Cancer article.
What similarities exist between cancer and autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?
We have touched on some of the similarities between the two conditions. It would seem that the genetic similarities are concerning.
There are studies constantly being done to try and figure out this enigma and if there is anything that parents and caregivers can do. Also what the future of treatments and medications can look like.
There are numerous environmental factors that the general population shares that can be considered cancer causing and should be avoided, or at least brought to a minimum.
Things like excessive exposure to UVA and UVB light, smoke and smog, certain medications and chemicals, and the list can continue on. The environmental factors and risks are shared among everyone, although there may be some that are more prevalent among the ASD community.
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What are some cancer treatment options for autistic individuals?
Although the cancer treatment options would remain the same between those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders and the general population, the coping mechanisms and sensory aspects should be taken into account.
Different strategies and schedules can be produced to help keep the autistic individual more comfortable in a clinical environment. It is important to note the individual’s preferences when it comes to sensory overload, visiting the doctor or other medical appointments, and whether they have a specified schedule and routine they prefer to follow that the treatments can fit into.
Some skills and options to consider would be:
- Sensory sensitivities: for those who have different sensory sensitivities and/or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) would benefit from lower lighting, minimal visual and auditory stimulations, providing sensory tools during visits, and taking into account any textures, smells, or other sensory stimulation that can occur during a visit
- Routine and consistency: make sure that family members have access to support and are able to support and be with the patient when needed while maintaining the same technicians that may be interacting with the individuals with ASD and their family members
- Visual stories, schedules, and rewards: there are a lot of children with ASD that crave consistency and do well with visuals like visual schedules and different kinds of social stories to help prepare them for what to expect during their visit, rewards like stickers, treats, or whatever is approved helps provide positive experiences during the visit
- Relaxation and other coping skills: Teaching deep breathing, providing sensory toys and whatever other coping skills may help before, during, and after the procedure to create the best environment for the autistic individual
Key components of this article
There have been nuggets throughout this article that help start the conversation about a potential link between ASD and cancer. We have discussed what the possible links could be, how to make the autistic individuals more comfortable during their cancer journey, that includes visits and other support to seek out if needed.
This article has also discussed similarities between cancer and autism, as well as what kinds of skills and support that is available for parents and caregivers. It isn’t an easy subject to discuss, it is an important one though.
It is always helpful to remember that healthcare professionals have a wealth of knowledge and access to support and information about different conditions and how they could affect individuals with ASD. It is always a good idea to discuss any questions or concerns you may have about your child with their doctor.
Crawley, J., Heyers, W., & LaSalle, J. (2015). Autism and Cancer Share Risk Genes, Pathways and Drug Targets. https://pdf.sciencedirectassets.com/271227/1
James, K. (2021). Autism and Cancer. https://ekuonline.eku.edu/blog/psychology/autism-and-cancer/