Solving the Mystery of Autism

Margaret Bauman ’60 has spent three decades researching the causes and treatment of autism.

by Karen Brown

Margaret Bauman and childToday, autism—a developmental disorder marked by difficulty communicating and making social connections—is practically a household word. The rate of diagnosis has exploded in recent years, with an estimated one in a hundred children believed to be somewhere on the autism spectrum. Autism-related advocacy groups, research grants, and therapy options abound.

But when Margaret Bauman ’60 first entered the field of autism brain research in the early 1980s, she was practically alone. At the time, she was training in Boston as a neurobiologist, interested in learning disabilities, and working for a laboratory that analyzed postmortem brains.

“I honestly can’t tell you why, but I remember saying to the lab director, ‘You don’t happen to have a case of autism, do you?’” remembers Bauman. “He said, ‘As a matter of fact we happen to have a case, a young man who passed away in 1977. The brain’s been sectioned, it’s on a slide, it’s been sitting in a drawer, nobody’s looked at it.’”

Bauman took on the project, and her early research was groundbreaking. She was among the first researchers to show that there are abnormalities in the brain tissue of children with autism compared with other children. To her surprise, one of the first reactions was a thank-you letter from the mother of the man whose brain she studied.

“Up until that time, parents were being blamed for autism,” Bauman said. “There was this [idea] of mothers not being warm and fuzzy, and that was supposedly what was causing autism. This was the first time that somebody found an underlying neurobiology to this disorder.”

Bauman went on to become world-renowned in her field, and this year she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society of Autism Research. She also founded a Boston-based research lab and clinic, The Lurie Center for Autism, where families have access to medical specialists, pharmaceutical counselors, and behavior therapists.

“We have a subset of kids who do pretty well,” Bauman says. “Then there are the kids who don’t—that’s the puzzle.” The Quarterly recently talked to Bauman to learn more.

Margaret Bauman in the labHow has the understanding of autism changed since you began working in the field?
When I first came into the field, this diagnosis [implied] that the mother was a bad mother. Parents would rather have their child called mentally retarded or language impaired. [Today] it has become more accepted that this is a neurobiological problem.

How has the science evolved around the causes of autism?
Initially people were looking for a single gene disorder like in Down syndrome, but it turns out that it’s probably going to be multiple genes, and there’s probably going to be multiple ways that you get it. More recently, people have been looking at prenatal immune factors. And of course there’s a great deal of interest in environmental factors.

Some people believe childhood vaccines play a role in the onset of autism, despite assurance from many scientists that they don’t.
There’s something odd about the development of these brains, and it begins before birth, which sort of defeats the whole vaccine idea.

Will there eventually be a test for autism in utero?
I think that’s what everybody is looking for. Everybody’s looking for biomarkers so that we can differentiate between developmentally delayed kids and autistic kids.

How do you balance your research and your practice?
What I do in the clinic informs the questions that I need to ask at a biological level. And the biology helps me understand why the kids are doing some of the things that they’re doing—it’s a fascinating field.

Listen to the audio interview with Margaret Bauman

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Karen Brown is a freelance writer and public radio reporter based in Northampton, Massachusetts.

First published in the Fall ’11 SAQ. Photographs by Jessica Scranton