Autism also known as autism spectrum disorder, refers to a neurological and developmental disorder characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, verbal and nonverbal communication.
The term “spectrum” reflects the wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism. Doctors include autism in a group of problems that kids can have, including Asperger syndrome and others. These problems happen when the brain develops differently and has trouble making sense of the world and helping someone communicate.
Autism’s most-obvious signs tend to appear between 2 and 3 years of age. In some cases, it can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. Some developmental delays associated with autism can be identified and addressed even earlier, as early intervention can improve outcomes.
Although there is no known cure, there have been reported cases of children who recovered. Not many children with autism live independently after reaching adulthood, though some become successful.
What Causes Autism?
Autism is due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Also, severe infections that affect the brain (meningitis, celiac disease, encephalitis, etc.) may cause autism.
Some cases are strongly associated with certain infections during pregnancy including rubella (German measles) and use of alcohol or cocaine and exposure to toxins.
Autism affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize; how this occurs is not well understood.
Other studies are looking at whether autism can be caused by other medical problems or by something in your child's surroundings.
Advanced age of the mother or the father increases the chance of an autistic child.
False claims in the news have made some parents concerned about a link between autism and vaccines. But studies have found no link between vaccines and autism. It's important to make sure that your child gets all childhood vaccines. They help keep your child from getting serious diseases that can cause harm or even death.
Signs and Symptoms of Autism
All children with autism don't have the exact same problems. Children with autism may have the following social and communication skills and common behaviours:
Your child may have problems using social skills to connect with other people. He/she may seem to be in his own world. It may be hard for him to:
share a common focus with another person about the same object or event, known as joint attention;
play with others and share toys;
make and keep friends.
Your child may have trouble with communication skills like understanding, talking with others, reading or writing. Sometimes, your child might lose words or other skills that he/she's used before. Your child may have problems:
understanding and using gestures, like pointing, waving, or showing objects to others;
understanding and using words;
learning to read or write. Or he/she may read early but without understanding the meaning, and this is called hyperlexia.
Your child also may:
repeat words just heard or words heard days or weeks earlier. This is called echolalia;
talk with little expression or use a sing-song voice;
use tantrums to tell you what he/she does or does not want.
A child with autism may:
have trouble changing from one activity to the next;
flap hands, rock, spin or stare;
get upset by certain sounds;
like only a few foods;
have limited and unusual interests-for example, talk about only one topic or keep staring at one toy.
Autism may also include other problems:
Many children with autism have below-normal intelligence.
Teenagers with autism often become depressed and have a lot of anxiety, especially if they have average or above-average intelligence.
Some children get a seizure disorder such as epilepsy by their teen years.
How is Autism Diagnosed?
There are guidelines your doctor will use to see if your child has symptoms of autism. The guidelines put symptoms into categories such as:
Social interactions and relationships. For example, a child may have trouble making eye contact. People with autism may have a hard time understanding someone else's feelings, such as pain or sadness.
Verbal and nonverbal communication. For example, a child may never speak. Or he or she may often repeat a certain phrase over and over.
Limited interests in activities or play. For example, younger children often focus on parts of toys rather than playing with the whole toy. Older children and adults may be fascinated by certain topics, like trading cards or license plates.
Your child may also have a hearing test and some other tests to make sure that problems are not caused by some other condition.
Available Treatments for People with Autism
The earlier a child starts getting help, the better. But figuring out if a kid has an autism spectrum disorder can be difficult at the beginning. A parent is usually the first to think that something could be wrong. Maybe the child is old enough to speak but doesn't. Or a kid doesn't seem interested in people, has a hard time playing with others, or acts in unusual ways.
Often, specialists work together as a team to figure out if there is a problem. In addition to the doctor, the team might include a psychologist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, and teacher.
There is no cure for autism, but doctors, therapists, and special education teachers can help kids learn to communicate better. A kid might learn sign language or get a message across by pointing at pictures. The care team also can help improve a kid's social skills, stuff like taking turns and playing in a group.
Some kids who have mild symptoms will graduate high school and may go to college and live on their own. Many will always need some kind of help. But all will have brighter futures when they have the support and understanding of their families, doctors, teachers, therapists, and friends. So be sure to be a friend!
How Can Your Family Cope with Having a Child with Autism?
An important part of your child's treatment plan is making sure that other family members get training about autism and how to manage symptoms. Training can reduce family stress and help your child function better. Some families need more help than others.
Take advantage of every kind of help you can find. Talk to your doctor about what help is available where you live. Family, friends, public agencies, and autism organizations are all possible resources.
Remember these tips:
Plan breaks. The daily demands of caring for a child with autism can take their toll. Planned breaks will help the whole family.
Get extra help when your child gets older. The teen years can be a very hard time for children with autism.
Get in touch with other families who have children with autism. You can talk about your problems and share advice with people who will understand.
Raising a child with autism is hard work. But with support and training, your family can learn how to cope.