Autism, also called autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder characterized by varying levels of difficulties with speech, social skills, nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Other common difficulties associated with the condition can include sensitivities to certain sensory stimuli, seizures, gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, anxiety, sleep disorders, attention issues, and depression.
The symptoms of autism typically first appear during the first few years of life (usually diagnosable around 2-3 years of age). However, in some cases, adults may be diagnosed with the condition, as the signs could have been missed during their childhoods.
The severity of impairment from autism can vary a great deal – for some, the social impairment can be severe. However, others may function quite well, and actually excel in many intellectual activities.
Cause Of Autism
The exact cause of autism is currently unknown. It is also unknown why the severity of the condition varies to the extent that it does.
However, it is very important to note that autism is NOT associated with childhood vaccines in any way. Any information that says otherwise is incorrect. All established and accredited medical expert groups agree there is no link between vaccination and autism.
Improved diagnosis parameters are the most likely reason for the increase in numbers over time. Newer definitions for what “counts” as the condition may also play a role.
Once separate syndromes that are now considered part of ASD include:
- Asperger syndrome
- Pervasive developmental disorder
- Childhood disintegrative disorder
Symptoms Of Autism
Symptoms of autism spectrum disorders can vary widely. Most symptoms will appear before 3 years of age, with the most common start being in the 18-24 month age range.
General difficulties with development can include:
- Communication difficulties
- Difficulties processing sensory information (how they receive and respond to sensations around them)
- Repetitive or unusual behaviors
- Difficulties with social skills
More specific symptoms of ASD can include:
- Not interacting with or listening to others
- Sensory sensitivity, including sounds, smells, tastes, sights, and touch
- Not responding when addressed
- Overreacting to small changes in their environment or routine
- Staring at objects for long periods of time
- Not speaking at all, or speaking very little
- Synesthesia (experiencing sounds as colors or touches as sounds)
- Desiring to play alone
- Self-destructive behavior
- Not being able to initiate or maintain eye contact
- Lacking imitation behaviors
- Tantrums, which can occur with little or no provocation
- Unusual uses of language
- Repetitive behaviors, such as spending hours on a single activity over and over again, physically rocking back and forth, or flapping their hands
- Not responding to pain stimuli as normal, such as experiencing pain from a light touch but ignoring more severe pain
There is no cure for autism. The most effective treatments, if necessary, often focus on helping the individual learn to thrive with their condition as much as possible. They seek to maximize the person’s independence and their quality of life. Depending on the severity of their autism, many affected individuals can live fairly normal and productive lives, and may excel in their chosen job or hobby.
Common treatments for more severely affected individuals with autism can include occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, and in some cases medications. Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy is another option, although its use is sometimes controversial to some autistic support communities.
A health care provider should be considering a diagnosis of autism if the child does not meet all of the following language milestones:
- Speaking two-word spontaneous phrases by 24 months of age (not just echoing another person)
- Speaking single words by 16 months of age
- Gesturing in a meaningful way (pointing, waving goodbye) by 12 months of age
- Babbling by 12 months of age
These milestones, if missed, can indicate a variety of conditions however, not just autism. The child may also need to have a blood lead test and get their hearing checked, in case the cause is another condition.
Only health care providers who are experienced with diagnosing and treating autism should be making the actual diagnosis of the disorder. As there is no specific test (such as a blood test) for autism, it’s diagnosed using the guidelines from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).