What is Autism?
Autism is a term used for a number of developmental disabilities called Autism Spectrum Disorder — or ASD. ASD emerges in the first three years of a child’s life, and can affect the child’s ability to communicate, understand language, and to develop social relationships.
The main types of Autism Spectrum Disorder include:
- Asperger’s Syndrome
- Pervasive Development Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)
- Other ASD (Rett’s Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder-CDD, etc)
The symptoms of ASD vary, and can range from mild to severe, but all children on the autism spectrum display:
- Difficulties with social interaction
- Difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication
- Repetitive behaviors or limited interests
Autism Red Flags – What Many Parents Notice First
One of the most common red flags parents report is that they suspect their child is deaf.
Because their child no longer responds to his/her name, and doesn’t look at them when they speak, they often think there may be a hearing issue. But in fact, the lack of response or eye contact can point to an autism disorder.
The American Academy of Neurology (AAN) recommends the following child development & surveillance screening tips for autism:
By 12 months
Doesn’t babble or coo
Gesturing: doesn’t wave bye-bye, or point to things he/she wants
By 16 months
Doesn’t say single words
By 24 months
Doesn’t say two word (or more) phrases
At any childhood age
Loss of any previously acquired language or social skills
A number of nongenetic, or “environmental” factors, along with less common genetic factors appear to increase a child’s risk for autism. The most common genetic influence is Fragile X syndrome, which is an X-linked genetic condition that more frequently affects males. Abnormalities on chromosome 15 also appear to have an influence on autism.
The more common environmental factors suspected for autism include advanced (older) parental age at time of conception (both mom and dad), maternal illness during pregnancy and certain difficulties during birth, particularly those involving periods of oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain. A growing body of research suggests that a woman can reduce her risk of having a child with autism by taking prenatal vitamins containing folic acid and/or eating a diet rich in folic acid (at least 600 mg a day) during the months before and after conception.
About Asperger Syndrome
Asperger syndrome (AS) has been referred to as high-function autism. Unlike children with more defined autism symptoms, children with Asperger’s retain their early language skills. The most distinguishing symptom of Asperger’s is a child’s obsessive interest in a single object or topic to the exclusion of any other. Children with Asperger’s want to know everything about their topic of interest and their conversations with others will be about little else. Their expertise, high level of vocabulary, and formal speech patterns make them seem like little professors.
Other characteristics of Asperger’s include repetitive routines or rituals; peculiarities in speech and language; socially and emotionally inappropriate behavior and the inability to interact successfully with peers; problems with non-verbal communication; and clumsy and uncoordinated motor movements. They are often physically awkward and poorly coordinated with a walk that can appear either stilted or bouncy.
Treatment for Asperger Syndrome
The ideal treatment for Asperger’s coordinates therapies that address the three core symptoms of the disorder: poor communication skills, obsessive or repetitive routines, and physical clumsiness. There is no single best treatment package for all children with Asperger’s, but most professionals agree that the earlier the intervention, the better. An effective treatment program builds on the child’s interests, offers a predictable schedule, teaches tasks as a series of simple steps, actively engages the child’s attention in highly structured activities, and provides regular reinforcement of behavior. It may include social skills training, cognitive behavioral therapy, medication for co-existing conditions, and other measures.