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Facts About Autism

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Autism is a developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. It is a neurological disorder that affects the development of the brain, causing difficulty with communication, learning, and social interaction. It is one of several Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) – also known as pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) – that include Asperger’s Syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). Children with Autistic Disorder may appear relatively normal in their development until the age of 18 to 30 months. The signs may be subtle at first. That’s why many children with Autistic Disorder are undiagnosed until toddler hoodn and beyond. Other children may show delays in development and unusual behaviors almost from birth. Developmental delays may occur in language, play skills, or social interaction. Following is a brief summary of the symptoms of Autistic Disorder (adapted from the Autism Society of America’s web page: “What Is Autism?”).

What are the symptoms of Autism?

Communication: A child with Autistic Disorder may learn language slowly or not at all; words may be used without attaching the usual meaning to them; gestures may be used instead of words; may ignore other’s speech; may use “nonsense” language; may have a short attention span.

Social Interaction: A child with Autistic Disorder may prefer to spend time alone rather than with others; may show little interest in making friends; may be less responsive to social cues such as eye contact or smiles.

Sensory Impairment: A child with Autistic Disorder may have unusual reactions to physical sensations, certain textures, sounds, smells, tastes, or sights; may be overly sensitive to touch or under-responsive to pain; any of the senses (sight, hearing, touch, pain, smell, and taste) may be affected to a greater or lesser degree.

Play: A child with Autistic Disorder may show a lack of spontaneous or imaginative play; may not imitate others’ actions; may have difficulty pretending.

Behaviors: A child with Autistic Disorder may be hyperactive or very passive; may have frequent tantrums for no apparent reason; may focus intensely on a single item, idea or person; may follow exact routines in the way they do things and may be very upset if the routine is changed; may show an apparent lack of common sense; may show aggressive or violent behavior or injure self.

What To Do: If you suspect your child has Autistic Disorder or several of the symptoms and/or shows a delay (or loss) in their development or skills, contact your child’s physician, your local health department, your child’s school, or your local mental health agency. Don’t be put off. Be persistent. Don’t settle for the same old answers: “He/she will outgrow it.”; or: “Boys talk later than girls.”; etc. This is your kid, be an advocate until you are sure nothing is wrong!

How prevalent is Autism?

The number of diagnosed cases of autism and similar disorders has dramatically increased over the past decade. The most recent studies report that Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) occur in approximately one in every 100 individuals in the United States. ASDs are the second most common serious developmental disability, following mental retardation. Autism is four times more likely to occur in boys than in girls.

How is Autism diagnosed?

There are no medical tests for diagnosing autism, but when parents become concerned about developmental delays in children, they should consult a physician. He or she can rule out various potential medical causes, such as hearing problems. Before a child can be diagnosed with autism, that child should be evaluated by an autism specialist. Such a person may be a psychologist, psychiatrist, pediatric neurologist, or developmental pediatrician who’s focus is on diagnosing and treating children with ASD. Best practice guidelines identify the following six components of a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation for autism:

  • Parent or caregiver interview
  • Review of relevant medical, psychological, and/or school records
  • Cognitive/developmental assessment
  • Direct play observation
  • Measurement of adaptive functioning
  • Comprehensive medical examination

The diagnosis of autism is made when certain characteristics listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) are present in rages that are inappropriate for the child’s age. The diagnosis of pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) is made when a child exhibits fewer symptoms that are present in autism, although the symptoms that are exhibited may be similar to those seen in a child with autism diagnosis.

What causes Autism?

Although one specific cause for autism is not known, current research links autism to biological and neurological differences in the brain. Autism is believed to have a genetic basis, although no single gene has been directly linked to the disorder. Researchers are using advanced brain-imaging technology to examine environmental factors that may contribute to the development of autism. MRI ( Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans can show abnormalities in the structure of the brain, with significant cellular differences in the cerebellum.

What treatments are recommended?

Most researchers agree that the sooner a child with autism begins an intervention program, the better. At this time, the best approach for autism treatment should involve special educators, psychologists, and speech and occupational therapists. Although medications are sometimes used to manage problematic behaviors associated with autism, there are currently no medications that effectively treat the core symptoms.

The National Standards Project, spearheaded by the National Autism Center, will provide the most comprehensive review of treatment strategies for ASD to date. Until the results of the National Standards Project are available, the best available evidence suggests that using interventions from the field of applied behavior analysis, or ABA, will produce the best outcomes. In ABA, scientifically established principles of learning and behavior are combined to address the primary areas of concern in autism – communication, social development, learning, and behavior problems.