Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), known mainly as autism, is a brain development condition that is characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and non verbal communication as well as unique strengths and differences.
A child with ASD who is very sensitive may be greatly troubled by sounds, touches, sights or smells that may seem normal to others. The term “spectrum” refers to the wide variation in symptoms, challenges and strengths that each person with autism may possess. This is important to recognize as autism has many types that are caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences.
The most obvious signs of autism usually begin in early childhood around the ages of 2 and 3, however, it is not uncommon to be diagnosed as early as 18 months. Autism now includes conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome that were previously considered a separate condition and is thought to affect about 1 in 59 children in the United States for example. It is important for parents with concerns to seek evaluation as quickly as possible without delay as early detection, may improve the outcome of the condition.
Cause and risk factors
The number of children being diagnosed with ASD has been increasing, however, it is not entirely clear whether this is due to increased detection and reporting or whether there is an actual increase in the number of cases. Autism spectrum disorder affects children of all races and nationalities but the following factors may increase your risk:
- Sex – Boys are about four times more likely to develop autis.
- Other disorders – Children with certain conditions are at a higher risk of developing autism. Such disorders include, fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis and Rett syndrome.
- Extremely preterm babies – Babies born before 26 weeks of pregnancy may be at a greater risk of ASD.
- Age of parents – There has been recent correlation between children born to older parents and ASD.
- Family history – Families that have a child with ASD are also at increased risk of having another child with ASD.
What are the signs and symptoms?
Each child of autism spectrum disorder is likely to have their own unique pattern of behavior as well as level of severity, from low functioning to high functioning. Some children show the signs and symptoms in early infancy, but it is not abnormal to develop normal during the first few months/years and then suddenly become withdrawn or lose skills they have already learned or acquired. Severity is usually determined by the level of impairments and how well they are able to function. Below are some of the signs shown by people with ASD:
Social communication and interaction
- Has poor eye contact and lacks facial expression.
- Delayed speech or lack thereof
Fails to respond to his/her name or appears not to hear you.
- Resists cuddling and holding, prefers to play alone.
- Can’t start a conversation or keep one going.
- Speaking in an abnormal tone or rhythm.
- Doesn’t express emotions or feelings/ being unaware of others feelings.
- Doesn’t appear to understand simple questions or directions. .
- Inappropriately approaching social interactions with aggressiveness or disruptiveness.
Patterns of behavior
- Usually sensitive to light, sound or touch but indifferent to pain or temperature.
- Is fascinated by details of an object.
- Has problems with coordination or odd movement patterns such as clumsiness, still or exaggerated body language.
- Performs activities that could cause self harm, such as biting or head-bangin.
- Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand flapping.
- Develops specific routines or processes and becomes disturbed at the slightest change.
- Fixates on an object or activity with abnormal intensity or focus.
- Has very specific food preferences such as refusing foods with a certain texture.
While some children become more engaged and show fewer signs and symptoms as they mature, many children with the more severe problems continue to have difficulty with language and/or social skills with the teen years bringing worse behavioral and emotional problems.
Diagnosis of ASD
To diagnose ASD, your pediatrician will likely be looking for any signs of development delays during your regular checks and may refer you to a specialist, such as a developmental pediatrician, for an evaluation if he/she suspects ASD. Due to the nature and spectrum of symptoms for ASD, it makes obtaining a diagnosis quite difficult as there is no single medicinal test. Instead your doctor may do the following:
- Observe your child and ask about their social interactions, communication skills and behavior.
- Present structured social and communication interactions to your child and score their performance.
- Include other specialists in determining a diagnosis.
- Give your child tests covering hearing, speech, language and developmental level.
- Use criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM – 5).
- Recommend genetic testing to identify other genetic disorders such as Rett or fragile X syndrome.
Is there any treatment ?
There is no cure or one-size-fits-all treatment for ASD and the goal of almost all treatment is to maximize your child’s ability to function normally in society by reducing the ASD symptoms. Some treatment options include:
- Family therapies.
- Education therapies.
- Behavioral and communication therapies.
- Other therapies.
If your child is diagnosed with ASD, it is important to speak with experts about creating a treatment strategy and to build a team of professionals in order to meet your child’s needs as best as possible.