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Autism Spectrum Disorder

For most parents and professionals, autism can be a puzzling and complex disorder. This is not surprising since, until quite recently, very little about it has been understood. Though a great deal of its mystery has yet to be uncovered, we definitely know much more about it than we did a decade ago. Just as our understanding has evolved over the years, so has the way we define, diagnose, and treat it.

WHO does autism affect?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) cuts across all lines of race, class, and ethnicity. Autism impacts millions of children, adults, and their families around the world. Boys have a significantly higher incidence of autism than girls: four out of every five people with autism are male. Because of the genetic link, siblings of a child with autism have a greater chance of being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Autism spectrum disorder affects not only the person diagnosed with the disorder, but also make a significant impact on the entire family with a variety of social, financial, and other practical demands.

WHAT is autism?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder defined by persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction, accompanied by restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.

The term “spectrum” is crucial to understanding autism, because of the wide range of intensity, symptoms and behaviors, and considerable individual variation. Children with ASD may be non-verbal and asocial, as in the case of many with “classic” autism. On the other end of the spectrum are children with a high-functioning form of autism characterized by idiosyncratic social skills and play.

More information about ASD may be found at at Autism Navigator.

WHEN is autism diagnosed?

The first signs of autism most often present themselves before the age of three; with education and practice, some clinicians have even been able to identify the warning signs in children under the age of one. Often, however, 15 to 18 months is the time parents first notice loss of skills or delays in development. Please see Hallmark Developmental Milestones and Red Flags for some of the warning signs.

Autism is characterized by what is clinically described as “deficits in social reciprocity.” Social reciprocity may include a range of back-and-forth actions, such as gestures, sounds, play, attention, and conversation. Further, ritualistic and obsessive behaviors are often present: for example, a child may insist on lining up toys rather than playing with them. In addition, a child with autism spectrum disorder may have uncontrollable temper tantrums, an extreme resistance to change, and over- or under-sensitivity to sights and sounds. The signs may be obvious, or subtle: for example, a three-year-old child can read, but can’t play peek-a-boo. Another child may never utter a spoken word, but rather uses pictures or signing to be understood. The symptoms are varied, but one thing is clear: the earlier a child is diagnosed and begins receiving services, the better the outcome for the child.

WHERE can a parent of a child with autism go for help?

Help for a child with autism begins at the physician’s office, with a referral to Early Intervention, specialists, and other services that might be covered by the insurance plan. Six months before a child’s third birthday, parents should contact their local school district for special educational services. At all stages of the process, from screening and diagnosis to making decisions about educational and treatment options, parents may benefit from an array of support groups, advocacy groups, and other organizations. These groups can provide a firm base for parent education and action.

WHY does a child have autism?

At this juncture, autism has no known cause or cure. Today, many parents and physicians are working together to advocate for increased funding of autism research.

HOW can I ensure the best developmental outcome for a child with autism?

Children with autism will have the best developmental outcome through early identification as well as early, intensive, and appropriate intervention. Parents can help promote a healthy developmental pathway for a child with autism in much the same way as for a typically-developing child: by being a loving, active, and involved caregiver, and by working creatively with each child’s unique challenges and opportunities.

WHAT other disorders are often associated with this profile and should be ruled out or in by a specialist?

Often, you will see one or more overlapping disorders, including seizures, allergies, gastrointestinal disorders, immune dysfunction, hyperactivity, obsessive behaviors, anxiety, mood regulation, and depression. None of these on their own would indicate a presence of an autism spectrum disorder, however, many children with ASD will have one or more of these co-morbid symptoms. About 25% of children with autism will experience seizures during their lifetime. Before the diagnosis of ASD is given, the following disorders should be ruled out or in:

Fragile X Syndrome
Tuberous Sclerosis
Landau-Kleffner Syndrome
Developmental Language Disorder
Mental Retardation
Selective Mutism
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
Schizoid Personality Disorder
Reactive Attachment Disorder
Hearing Impairment
Chromosomal and Metabolic Disorders

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