In some ways, Susan Senator of Brookline, Mass., was no different than any other parent who was worried about her 18-year-old child leaving the nest.
But in fact her situation was vastly different. She spent many nights awake wondering if sending her autistic son to a specialized residential school program was the best option.
Senator said she was so afraid that she could not tell her son, Nat Batchelder, who was 18 at the time, that he would be moving out of his family's home.
"If we tell him too soon, he'll just get anxious," she said. "But the time is passing, and Nat is getting older, and we want to see him succeed."
Senator said she became sick to her stomach wondering whether her son would be able to adapt to change in his everyday routine -- a difficult task for many individuals on the autism spectrum.
Fortunately, it appears that Batchelder, now 19, has adjusted to his new schedule at the residential program. But for Senator, the worrying continues; she now fears what her son's life will be like in three years, when he ages out of a specialized school system.
Thousands of parents across the country can sympathize with Senator's concerns. Meanwhile, researchers in the field of autism spectrum disorders look toward the future at the possibility of clearer diagnoses, better treatment and other advances that may one day help to mitigate the worry that these parents experience.
Dr. Lisa Shulman, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, says the structure is already in place to support scientific research and interventions for treatment. She said that unlike a decade ago, many parents now recognize some of the symptoms of autism and will ask their children's specialist if they suspect their children have autism.
"Certainly, awareness has already contributed to making great gains in the diagnosis and treatment of autism," Shulman said.
Shulman said recognition of early signs and the emergence of educational and support services within the past decade have also helped to advance the outcomes for individuals with autism. A multi-pronged plan of attack -- one that includes earlier diagnosis, more evidence-based intervention, and research into the causes of autism -- is on the horizon, she said.
Dr. Daniel Geshwind, director of UCLA's Center for Autism Research and Treatment, said that of these goals, earlier diagnosis through the identification of one or more of the genes that cause autism is a top priority.
"First identifying cause will help you find a mechanism, and then you can either prevent or treat," Geshwind said. "Finding the mechanism doesn't mean an automatic treatment, but we definitely need the first step."
Government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are exploring the idea that certain environmental stressors could unmask physical symptoms of genetic diseases known as mitochondrial disorders.
But although environmental stressors may be one link, Shulman says research is pointing to a range of causes of autism.
"It's more likely that genetics coupled with environment stressors may be just one combination that suggests cause," Shulman said.