Autism: What you should know
There is no single known cause of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and theories of vaccines being the culprit have been proven to be untrue. ASD can be detected in babies, but often remains undiagnosed until years later. According to the World Health Organization, ASD affects one in 160 children worldwide. Thankfully, there are several resources available for both children and adults.
What is autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurobiological condition that includes Asperger’s syndrome. The “spectrum” is the range of impairment; there are many shared symptoms, but they differ in the number, severity, and age of onset, as well as the level of functioning and degree of challenge in social interaction. ASD sufferers also have a very limited range of interests and tend to exhibit repetitive behaviours.
Asperger’s is a “high-functioning,” less severe form of ASD. People with Asperger’s don’t demonstrate language or cognitive development delays. In fact, they are as bright as their peers and often have very rich vocabularies, especially in subjects that are of special interest to them. Asperger’s sufferers are socially awkward; they have trouble making eye contact and can’t read social cues like body language or facial expressions. Because Asperger’s sufferers are high functioning, their condition isn’t usually detected until serious problems at school or on a social level arise. The syndrome is often discovered while seeking help for depression or anxiety.
What causes autism spectrum disorder?
No single cause of ASD has been found. In fact, its complexity combined with the variations in its severity and symptoms indicates that it is likely to have numerous causes, both genetic and environmental.
Slow development is common
Children with autism spectrum disorder often miss certain developmental milestones. These milestones are guidelines to help parents determine if their child is developing and learning normally. While no two children develop at exactly the same rate, lengthy delays in reaching these milestones may be cause for concern. If you feel your child is not progressing or may be falling behind, discuss it with your child’s paediatrician.
Early detection is key
Children can show signs of autism spectrum disorder as young as 12 months old and a professional diagnosis can be made by age two. Early recognition and diagnosis is ideal, so it’s important to know what to look for. Not all paediatricians have experience in diagnosing ASD, so if you think your child is not developing normally, or seems to be regressing, get help right away.
Screening tools are available online
Although ASD can be diagnosed by age two, many children remain undiagnosed until they are much older. This causes a delay in effective treatment. Many organizations provide screening tools for parents who suspect their child may have a developmental delay. These tools are not designed to be conclusive, so be sure to follow up with your child’s doctor.
ASD and Asperger’s in girls? Rare but possible
ASD and Asperger’s are rare in girls, but they do occur. Typically, the ratio of boys to girls with autism is 4 to 1, while for Asperger’s, it is an estimated 10 to 1. The reason for the gender gap is not clear; one possibility is that girls with ASD and Asperger’s are under-diagnosed because they are better at masking their symptoms, giving their condition a different “appearance” to that of their male counterparts.
Coping with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder
Learning that your child has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder can come as quite a shock. You may feel unprepared to deal with your child’s condition. Grief and denial are also common. But there are numerous resources available to help families deal with a child who has special needs.
Autism and vaccines: Is there a link?
You may have heard that autism spectrum disorder may be caused by the vaccines children receive, but there has been no link found between vaccines and autism. According to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of antigens (the substances in the vaccines that trigger the production of disease-fighting antibodies) is identical in both ASD and non ASD children. Vaccines containing thimerosal were also once thought to have been linked to autism, but CDC studies have found no such links. Moreover, thimerosal-free vaccines have been available since 2001. The CDC has done nine studies since 2003 and concluded that there is no link between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and autism in children.
No shortcuts for diagnosing autism spectrum disorder
There is no medical test to determine if a child has ASD, but a comprehensive medical evaluation is still necessary. ASD has such a broad range of symptoms and behaviours that it may sometimes be confused with other disorders or syndromes. It’s important to have a complete assessment with a variety of healthcare professionals such as speech therapists, psychologists, and neurologists, so getting an accurate diagnosis may take some time.
Treatment options for autism spectrum disorder
No parent wants to hear their child has autism, but there are treatments available. These can involve therapies, medications, or a combination of both. Associated conditions must be taken into account as well. Early intervention yields the best results.
Is it really “just autism?”
Nearly three quarters of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder suffer from other psychiatric or medical conditions such as anxiety, attention deficit disorder, and food intolerances. They can appear at any time and can have a significant impact on the ASD treatments and therapies, so proper identification and treatment is the key. Keep an eye out for behaviours that may indicate an underlying accompanying condition.
Coping with autism at home
Families with autistic children often face stigma and isolation, but this can be minimized with a bit of advance preparation. Parents need to educate themselves, siblings, and extended family members on the best way to handle their child’s behaviour. And most importantly, parents need to ensure adequate self-care as their child’s needs may prove draining at times.
Autism at school
The classroom environment can be very challenging for an autistic child. It’s important to make sure that both your child and the teacher are adequately prepared for their time together. Other children in the class may also need help in dealing with their classmate’s special needs. Any tips you can share with staff and students will be helpful.
The brighter side of autism
While ASD is hardly a diagnosis a parent is happy to receive for their child, there is a bright side to the condition. Children and adults suffering from autism sometimes display exceptional memory, non-verbal reasoning skills, drawing skills, and musical ability, among other talents. Embrace it! There is an annual Autistic Pride Day that is celebrated on June 18 of every year, all over the world.