In many ways, 6-year-old Roman Salamon is like a lot of boys his age. He writes. He understands. But because of his autism, he doesn’t speak.
“Within our little bubble of a house, it is easy for us because it is our normal, but when we go out and see other kids and families, it’s hard. I wish I could have a conversation with him, like any other parent of a 6-year-old. I can’t,” his mother, Jennifer Salamon, told Channel 4 Action News anchor Sally Wiggin.
But the question remains: Why does autism happen to Roman and so many others?
As diagnostic techniques become better at spotting autism spectrum disorders, researchers believe genetics are likely a factor.
“There is always a genetic component, but genetics do not change that much. Things don’t suddenly become genetic,” said Dr. Evelyn Talbott, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Talbott pointed to research from 1980 that showed one in about 5,000 children was diagnosed with autism. That number later grew to one in 500 and currently sits at approximately one in 88.
“There is still that gnawing question: Is there something in the environment? When you close your eyes in 1980, what is different now than when we were young, when we were growing up?” said Talbott.
Talbott cited a California study of mothers who lived near highways during their pregnancies.
“Roadways are a major way of life in California, as you know, and they found increased risk among mothers of autistic children who live within 1,000 feet,” said Talbott.
But Talbott’s team at Pitt isn’t focusing solely on air pollution from cars.
She told Wiggin they plan to leave no stone unturned, examining pollutants from coal-fired power plants, pesticides in farming areas and possible pollutants in well water versus municipal systems.
“So the study is going to ask about where people have lived. Where did a mother live before she got pregnant, right before she got pregnant? Her first, second and third trimester and directly at the time of birth and maybe shortly thereafter,” said Talbott.
Salamon said the study made her think about where she was living when her son was born.
“We lived in Bellevue at the beginning of my pregnancy, so we were pretty close to Neville Island,” Salamon said.
Salamon is part of the Pitt study, which is the first of its kind in the industrial northeast. The study has conducted 136 interviews so far and examined another 130 cases in a control group.
“I thought it was great because I always thought there was an environmental factor in his autism and a lot of kids,” said Salamon.
If the study, which is only halfway completed, shows that a certain kind of pollution contributes to the risk of autism, what happens then?
“It’s just like lead in paint. When we found lead in paint was causing childhood lead poisoning, what did we do? We took it out,” said Talbott.
The Salamons said they hope others will take notice.
“You would hope that would get politicians’ attentions and they would start making changes and start really getting serious about the environment and what is happening to our kids,” said Salamon.
“What is done is done, as far as (Roman). We can just hope to treat him and hopefully overcome what he has,” said the boy’s father, Mike Salamon.
Jennifer Salamon remains active in ABOARD’s Autism Connection of PA, a support group for families.
For more information on environmental risk factors for childhood autism and how to get involved, visit childhoodautism.pitt.edu
Talbott said more volunteers are needed for the study.