What is Autism?
Autism spectrum disorder is a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others, causing problems in social interaction and communication. The disorder also includes limited and repetitive patterns of behavior. The term “spectrum” in autism spectrum disorder refers to the wide range of symptoms and severity.
Autism spectrum disorder includes conditions that were previously considered separate autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood dis-integrative disorder and an unspecified form of pervasive developmental disorder. Some people still use the term “Asperger’s syndrome,” which is generally thought to be at the mild end of autism spectrum disorder.Autism is a non communicable disease Click To Tweet
Autism spectrum disorder begins in early childhood and eventually causes problems functioning in society socially, in school and at work, for example. Often children show symptoms of autism within the first year. A small number of children appear to develop normally in the first year, and then go through a period of regression between 18 and 24 months of age when they develop autism symptoms.
While there is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, intensive, early treatment can make a big difference in the lives of many children.
What Are the Types of Autism Spectrum Disorders?
Earlier experts talked about different types of autism, such as autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). But now they are all called “autism spectrum disorders.”
If you still listen to doctor’s community and people use some of the older terms, you may want to know what they mean. Let’s us explain;
- Asperger’s syndrome. This is on the milder end of the autism spectrum. A person with Asperger’s may be very intelligent and able to handle her daily life. She may be really focused on topics that interest her and discuss them nonstop. But she has a much harder time socially.
- Pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). This mouthful of a diagnosis included most children whose autism was more severe than Asperger’s syndrome, but not as severe as autistic disorder.
- Autistic disorder. This older term is further along the autism spectrum than Asperger’s and PDD-NOS. It includes the same types of symptoms, but at a more intense level.
- Childhood disintegrative disorder. This was the rarest and most severe part of the spectrum. It described children who develop normally and then quickly lose many social, language, and mental skills, usually between ages 2 and 4. Often, these children also developed a seizure disorder.
Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders
Social behavior and social understanding
Basic social interaction can be difficult for children with autism spectrum disorders. Symptoms may include;
- Unusual or inappropriate body language, gestures, and facial expressions (e.g. avoiding eye contact or using facial expressions that don’t match what he or she is saying)
- Lack of interest in other people or in sharing interests or achievements (e.g. showing you a drawing, pointing to a bird)
- Unlikely to approach others or to pursue social interaction; comes across as aloof and detached; prefers to be alone
- Difficulty understanding other people’s feelings, reactions, and nonverbal cues
- Resistance to being touched
- Difficulty or failure to make friends with children the same age
Speech and language
Many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder struggle with speech and language comprehension. Symptoms may include;
- Delay in learning how to speak (after the age of two) or doesn’t talk at all
- Speaking in an abnormal tone of voice, or with an odd rhythm or pitch
- Repeating words or phrases over and over without communicative intent
- Trouble starting a conversation or keeping it going
- Difficulty communicating needs or desires
- Doesn’t understand simple statements or questions
- Taking what is said too literally, missing humour, irony, and sarcasm
Restricted behavior and play
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder are often restricted, rigid, and even obsessive in their behaviors, activities, and interests. Symptoms may include;
- Repetitive body movements (hand flapping, rocking, spinning); moving constantly
- Obsessive attachment to unusual objects (rubber bands, keys, light switches)
- Preoccupation with a narrow topic of interest, sometimes involving numbers or symbols (maps, license plates, sports statistics)
- A strong need for sameness, order, and routines (e.g. lines up toys, follows a rigid schedule). Gets upset by change in their routine or environment.
- Clumsiness, abnormal posture, or odd ways of moving
- Fascinated by spinning objects, moving pieces, or parts of toys (e.g. spinning the wheels on a race car, instead of playing with the whole car)
- Hyper- or hypo-reactive to sensory input (e.g. reacts badly to certain sounds or textures, seeming indifference to temperature or pain)
Many children with autism spectrum disorders either under react or overreact to sensory stimuli. At times they may ignore people speaking to them, even to the point of appearing deaf. However, at other times they may be disturbed by even the softest sounds. Sudden noises such as a ringing telephone can be upsetting, and they may respond by covering their ears and making repetitive noises to drown out the offending sound. Children on the autism spectrum also tend to be highly sensitive to touch and to texture. They may cringe at a pat on the back or the feel of certain fabric against their skin.
Children with autism spectrum disorders may have difficulty regulating their emotions or expressing them appropriately. For instance, your child may start to yell, cry, or laugh hysterically for no apparent reason. When stressed, he or she may exhibit disruptive or even aggressive behavior (breaking things, hitting others, or harming him or herself). The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities also notes that kids with ASD may be unfazed by real dangers like moving vehicles or heights, yet be terrified of harmless objects such as a stuffed animal.
Uneven cognitive abilities
ASD occurs at all intelligence levels. However, even kids with normal to high intelligence often have unevenly developed cognitive skills. Not surprisingly, verbal skills tend to be weaker than nonverbal skills. In addition, children with Autism spectrum disorder typically do well on tasks involving immediate memory or visual skills, while tasks involving symbolic or abstract thinking are more difficult.
When to consult a doctor if you have doubt your child has autism?
Babies develop at their own pace, and many don’t follow exact timelines found in some parenting books. But children with autism spectrum disorder usually show some signs of delayed development before age 2 years.
If you’re concerned about your child’s development or you suspect that your child may have autism spectrum disorder, discuss your concerns with your child’s doctor. The symptoms associated with the disorder can also be linked with other developmental disorders.
Signs of autism spectrum disorder often appear early in development when there are obvious delays in language skills and social interactions. Your doctor may recommend developmental tests to identify if your child has delays in cognitive, language and social skills, if your child;
- Doesn’t respond with a smile or happy expression by 6 months
- Doesn’t mimic sounds or facial expressions by 9 months
- Doesn’t babble or coo by 12 months
- Doesn’t gesture such as point or wave by 14 months
- Doesn’t say single words by 16 months
- Doesn’t play “make-believe” or pretend by 18 months
- Doesn’t say two-word phrases by 24 months
- Loses language skills or social skills at any age
Risk factors of Autism Spectrum Disorder
The number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder is rising. It’s not clear whether this is due to better detection and reporting or a real increase in the number of cases, or both.
Autism spectrum disorder affects children of all races and nationalities, but certain factors increase a child’s risk. These may include;
- Your child’s sex. Boys are about four times more likely to develop autism spectrum disorder than girls are.
- Family history. Families who have one child with autism spectrum disorder have an increased risk of having another child with the disorder. It’s also not uncommon for parents or relatives of a child with autism spectrum disorder to have minor problems with social or communication skills themselves or to engage in certain behaviors typical of the disorder.
- Other disorders. Children with certain medical conditions have a higher than normal risk of autism spectrum disorder or autism-like symptoms. Examples include fragile X syndrome, an inherited disorder that causes intellectual problems; tuberous sclerosis, a condition in which benign tumors develop in the brain; and Rett syndrome, a genetic condition occurring almost exclusively in girls, which causes slowing of head growth, intellectual disability and loss of purposeful hand use.
- Extremely preterm babies. Babies born before 26 weeks of gestation may have a greater risk of autism spectrum disorder.
- Parents’ ages. There may be a connection between children born to older parents and autism spectrum disorder, but more research is necessary to establish this link.
Causes of Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism spectrum disorder has no single known cause. Given the complexity of the disorder, and the fact that symptoms and severity vary, there are probably many causes. Both genetics and environment may play a role.
- Genetics. Several different genes appear to be involved in autism spectrum disorder. For some children, autism spectrum disorder can be associated with a genetic disorder, such as Rett syndrome or fragile X syndrome. For other children, genetic changes (mutations) may increase the risk of autism spectrum disorder. Still other genes may affect brain development or the way that brain cells communicate, or they may determine the severity of symptoms. Some genetic mutations seem to be inherited, while others occur spontaneously.
- Environmental factors. Researchers are currently exploring whether factors such as viral infections, medications or complications during pregnancy, or air pollutants play a role in triggering autism spectrum disorder.
There is No link between vaccines and autism spectrum disorder
One of the greatest controversies in autism spectrum disorder centers on whether a link exists between the disorder and childhood vaccines. Despite extensive research, no reliable study has shown a link between autism spectrum disorder and any vaccines. In fact, the original study that ignited the debate years ago has been retracted due to poor design and questionable research methods.
Avoiding childhood vaccinations can place your child and others in danger of catching and spreading serious diseases, including whooping cough (pertussis), measles or mumps.
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