Autism Spectrum Disorder
Many children with autism show signs in early childhood. They might seem normal for a while, then lose language and social skills they had at a younger age.
Health care providers use screening tools to check for autism. They also can diagnose it based on guidelines in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Children with autism experience social, communication and behavioral challenges. They may be very intelligent, but find it hard to interact with others and express themselves. They might have trouble with nonverbal communication, like eye contact or facial expressions. They may have restricted interests and repetitive behaviors, like flapping hands or body rocking. They might be unfazed by real dangers but terrified of things that seem harmless to others, like a moving car or a stuffed animal.
Prenatal problems, genetic conditions and certain medical conditions like fragile X syndrome or tuberous sclerosis raise the risk of autism. Extremely preterm babies are at a higher risk, too.
Doctors used to classify autism as autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder — not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). In 2013, the psychiatric association merged these four diagnoses into one umbrella term for autism spectrum disorders. ASD can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. But it usually shows up in early childhood, often by age 2. The earlier you recognize the symptoms, the sooner your child can get help.
The earlier Autism is diagnosed, the sooner people can start treatment to improve their behavior, communication and social skills. The condition can be hard to identify because it has a wide range of symptoms and affects each person differently. A diagnosis is made by a medical professional, usually a doctor or a psychologist.
Doctors can see if a child has autism by watching them and asking questions. They may also use tests to check their intelligence and nervous system.
To get a diagnosis, a person must have lasting problems with social interaction and communication, restricted interests and repetitive patterns of behavior. The American Psychiatric Association recently changed the definition of autism to include four conditions that were once separate — autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).
Doctors can also check for subthreshold autism using an interview with parents called the Autism Diagnostic Interview, Revised (or ADIT-R). It’s quick, easy to administer and has been shown to be accurate.
There is no cure for autism, but treatments can help children manage their symptoms and learn new skills. They may include Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI), special education, speech therapy, occupational therapy, social skills training and psychopharmacology. Treatments should continue through adulthood.
As children with autism get older, their symptoms may decrease. This can be a good sign that the treatments are working, though they’ll need to continue through adulthood to maintain their progress.
Occupational therapy helps people with autism develop daily living skills, such as feeding and dressing themselves. It also addresses sensory issues, like over-sensitivity or a need for routine.
Some medicines can help control behavior problems like irritability and depression. These are usually prescription drugs like aripiprazole or risperidone. Some people with autism have gastrointestinal issues, too, so they may need special diets or medicines that reduce gas and diarrhea. Talk to your child’s doctor about these. You can find support groups for families of people with autism, too.
Although there is no cure for autism, intensive early treatment can greatly improve a child’s behavior and social skills. Some children outgrow their symptoms as they grow older and can lead normal lives.
The cause of autism is not known, but certain genetic factors are believed to be involved. Also, environmental stresses in the mother’s pregnancy, such as illness, can increase the risk of autism. It is more common in boys than in girls, and it can be more likely to occur if a person has a genetic condition such as fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis complex, or a chromosomal disorder such as Down syndrome.
Women who are planning to become pregnant or are in their first trimester of pregnancy can take steps to help prevent autism, such as staying healthy, avoiding gestational diabetes and obesity, getting all recommended vaccines, and not drinking any alcohol. In addition, women should be sure to have a genetic test done before having a baby to see whether they could pass on a mutation to their child.