Living with someone who has autism can make life very challenging. Individuals who are affected by autism often struggle to communicate their thoughts and feelings, and the condition has a strong effect on speech and behavior. Like most conditions, autism can vary in terms of its severity. Some sufferers may experience only mild symptoms, while others may demonstrate much more severe symptoms.
How Common Is Autism?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that autism may affect one child out of every one hundred and fifty in the US. Although autism is not a condition that tends to predominantly affect specific genders or ethnic groups, experts believe that boys are more likely to be affected by autism. If one or more children in the same family have autism, it is fairly likely that subsequent siblings will also develop the condition. However, this will not necessarily happen.
What Causes Autism?
The causes of autism are not fully known. Some experts believe that it is the result of a bio-chemical imbalance in the brain, while others see it as a psychological disorder. It is widely believed to be at least partially caused by either genetic or environmental factors, or a combination of both of these factors. For example, some experts believe that autism sufferers are more likely to develop autism as a result of their genes, and that this is then triggered by one or more aspects of their surroundings. This can happen during pregnancy or shortly after birth.
Autism is thought to be more likely if parents are ‘older’ than average, especially in relation to ‘older’ fathers. Studies in Israel have indicated that children are up to six times more likely to develop autism if their father was aged forty or over at the time of their conception in comparison to children whose fathers were aged thirty or under. This can be explained by the fact that sperm mutations are more likely to occur in ‘older’ men, and this is believed to be a key contribution to the causes of autism if the condition is developed before birth. However, this in itself is not enough to cause autism if outside factors do not act as a trigger. Examples of this can include toxins, chemicals, viral infections, pesticides and certain types of prescription medication that are thought to have the ability to act as a ‘trigger’ for a genetic predisposition to autism.
What Are The Symptoms of Autism?
Children with autism develop at a much slower rate than other children of the same age. It is common for them to display difficulties in communicating and interacting with people and objects. They often learn to talk later than other children in their age group and often have little or no interest in their surroundings. Because of this, they often appear as though they are located within their own private world. Other prominent symptoms can include making facial expressions that are not appropriate to the situation and communicating through repetitive speech patterns. Repetition is a common characteristic of autism symptoms. This can present itself in strong and often irrational attachments to specific people or objects and being very resistant to change and disruption. Even the smallest change to the usual daily routine can cause significant distress. Rocking backwards and forwards is a typical response to this.
In addition to the more obvious outward symptoms, there can also be less visible symptoms. For example, autism sufferers often experience chronic gastric inflammation, which can result in restricted diets that only contain certain foods. Because of this, autism sufferers can have numerous vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
How Is Autism Diagnosed?
‘Screening’ can be carried out on children who are suspected of having autism. This is done by a pediatrician, and is a relatively simple procedure that involves a series of questions that the child must respond to. The results of this are used in conjunction with a checklist of the symptoms that your child is displaying to determine whether he or she has developed autism.
If the results of this ‘screening’ procedure indicates autism, a referral to a specialist will then be organized. He or she will be able to conduct a much more thorough diagnostic assessment. This takes several stages and can be a drawn-out procedure. Firstly, the specialist will discuss your child’s medical, behavioral and developmental history to get a comprehensive idea of his or her background. Secondly, there will be a medical examination which involves a physical examination, a neurological examination, laboratory tests and genetic tests. Thirdly, hearing tests will be conducted to exclude hearing problems as a possible reason for your child’s communication problems. This stage will also look for any hearing issues that can happen with autism. Fourthly, your child’s behavior will be assessed in a range of situations. This stage is designed to spot any strange or irregular behavior that is indicative of autism. Finally, lead screening will be done to rule out lead poisoning as a possible cause of your child’s symptoms.
There may also be additional stages, including an evaluation of your child’s speech and language skills, cognitive testing, an adaptive functioning assessment, and a sensory-motor assessment. These evaluations will give an even more thorough assessment of your child’s situation and can rule out other contributing factors to his or her delayed development.
What Are The Treatment Options?
Experts suggest that the symptoms of autism can be treated more successfully if the condition is diagnosed early on in its development. This does not necessarily mean that autism cannot be treated if it has gone undiagnosed for years, but it is less likely to be as successful. Behavior therapy is one of the most common forms of treatment for autism. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) can help autistic children to interact with people and improve their speech and language skills. Other forms of treatment include physical therapy and occupational therapy. As a general rule of thumb, Applied Behavior Analysis works best if autistic children receive between twenty-five and forty hours of therapy per week. For maximum effectiveness, parents should learn the basics of Applied Behavior Analysis so that it can be used at home as well.
Vaccines have been put forward as a potential cure for autism. However, as autism tends to develop during pregnancy or shortly after birth, this would be largely ineffective for many autism sufferers.