It is a great pleasure to follow Mrs Trevelyan, whose speech was interesting, intelligent and very passionate, born of personal experience. I must also congratulate Dame Cheryl Gillan on securing and leading this important debate, which follows her great innovation of the Autism Act 2009.
As I am sure other Members did, I watched the excellent Channel 4 TV programme on autism yesterday evening. Its focus was primarily on a number of high-functioning, lively, intelligent and indeed charming younger people, illustrating the enormous breadth of the autistic spectrum. It is clear that the spectrum is not simply linear, but more of a patchwork of very varied and quite different behavioural characteristics. My concern today is about those who suffer more serious symptoms, as well as about their families and carers, who sometimes have to cope with very challenging behaviours, but my main focus will be on the possible causes of autism and how they might be addressed.
We know that autism comes in many forms, and although it is an unusual neurological condition, it can vary enormously—from those with behaviours that can be challenging to high-functioning individuals who sometimes have astonishing talents and abilities. Only yesterday, there were media reports about a brilliant young schoolboy with extraordinary musical abilities who seems destined for a great career as a concert pianist; even now, he is already composing.
As I have said, my particular concern is to look at the possible causes of autism and to address some possible factors in autism in its more distressing forms. I must emphasise that I am no expert in neurology, but I have long taken a thoughtful amateur interest in the subject. I am sure that much, indeed most, autism derives from genetic factors, and as the human genome is explored, some of this will be explained.
Some environmental factors, however, must also play a part in a range of human conditions. For example, it is well known that a deficiency in folic acid during pregnancy can be a contributory factor in certain birth defects, and vitamin D deficiency is at the root of much ill health. Even more worrying are the effects of some prescribed medications given in pregnancy, which have been demonstrated to cause foetal problems and lifetime difficulties for some babies.
I have to say that I have a specific interest in the influence of alcohol consumed in pregnancy, and I have long been an active member of the all-party group on foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Most significantly, questions have been asked about the possibility that alcohol is a factor in some cases of autism. In preparing for this debate, I looked online at what research had been undertaken in order to discover whether there was a causal link between alcohol consumed in pregnancy and some—I emphasise, some—cases of autism. I found abstracts of six research reports dating from 2005 to 2012, in which the researchers have concluded that FASD and autism do exhibit similarities, although it is difficult to show that they are exactly the same. It is of course important to distinguish correlations and observed similarities from causal relationships.
The finding of one piece of research is that FASD and autism share similarities in social and communicative functioning. A more detailed report has illustrated a strong overlap between behavioural characteristics in FASD and in autism. That piece of research compared behaviours for 10 different conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder and depression, as well as autism and FASD. Some 39 characteristic behaviours for FASD were compared with the other conditions, and of them, 20 were also typical of autism, 24 of bipolar disorder, 17 of depression and 12 of ADHD. There were also differences between FASD and autism disorders, but it remains a possibility that there is a link between the two. Indeed, some individuals have in the past been diagnosed as autistic when they had actually been affected by alcohol and had FASD.
It is known that people with extreme cases of FASD exhibit facial dysmorphology, but researchers have found that FASD children are equally sensitive intellectually, regardless of whether or not they have facial dysmorphology. Such factors can make it more difficult to distinguish FASD from autism, and there are of course cases of individuals having both autism and FASD.
More research clearly needs to be carried out, and I have probably only scratched the surface of the research already done. However, if alcohol is a factor in some cases of autism, this would be very significant, and it would surely make the case for abstaining from alcohol in pregnancy overwhelming. Indeed, any substance, especially a medication, that is known to cause foetal damage should be avoided around the time of conception and during pregnancy. We all know that, but not enough is done to publicise it.
Even if it is eventually found that FASD and autism are entirely separate conditions, reducing the incidence of FASD—a terrible affliction in itself—is surely a vital and urgent matter that must be more seriously addressed by the Government. A number of Governments in Canada, Denmark and elsewhere are far ahead of Britain in taking steps to reduce the incidence of FASD, and we must follow their good practice. Many thousands of people will in future benefit in life-enhancing ways if those of us in politics do much more to reduce levels of the distressing forms of autism and of FASD. If we do this, we shall certainly have achieved something of immense significance, and indeed, I believe that we shall have added to the sum total of human happiness.