What is autism?
A simple explanation of autism
The official name for autism is autism spectrum disorder (ASD) due to the fact that doctors have classified autism as a collection of conditions and not just one. The basis of autism, explained simply, is when the patient’s brain develops differently to other people’s and they may battle making sense of things around them in the conventional way.
Every second, our brain is computing what to do next, making sense of the world and interpreting everything we touch, hear, smell, see and feel. People with autism often find it hard to interpret these things as others do and often see things in a completely different light than the average person.
Thus, autism affects the way that a person’s brain make sense of everyday things and the sufferer may particularly battle in connecting actions and feelings. For instance, if someone smiles, it is an indication to most people that they are happy, the same goes for when someone is angry – their facial expressions and body language cues indicate this.
Someone with autism may however not be able to process these emotions in the same way as most people or come to the above conclusions through examining an expression or gesture, as they often have trouble understanding people’s emotions and how to react to them. An autistic person may therefore react in a seemingly unusual way, making it difficult for the average person to understand them. Typical behaviour may also often include repetitive actions.
Autism is diagnosed in children when they are between 24 months and 6 years old and continues to affect them throughout their lives depending on the severity and treatment.
A more complex explanation of autism
Autism, known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), discussed above, is the umbrella term for a group of disorders which are referred to as pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs). Asperger’s syndrome or Asperger’s disorder falls under ASD.
Autism’s main characterisations are difficulty with social interaction and communication. Characteristics of autistic people are often viewed as repetitive, rigid and restricted behavioural types. The range of characteristics allow the condition to be grouped under the term ASD. It is a multifaceted condition that is known as a neurobehavioral condition – which relates to the basis of behaviour being affected by the nervous system.
The levels of effect of ASD range in severity. Some patients may be able to learn and adapt to their condition in the hopes of living a normal life, others may require institutionalisation.
This is not to view the condition as a setback for those who have it, as some patients may exhibit exceptional skills and abilities beyond the average person’s capabilities. The conditions affect people differently.
The following article takes a closer look at autism and its causes, symptoms and more. As helpful and informative as this information may be, it is important to keep in mind that this is merely a guideline and does not serve as a diagnosis or treatment for any condition. It is always best to consult with a doctor or healthcare professional for that. For the sake of easy reading in this article, we will refer to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as autism.
What causes autism?
There is still no scientific cause of autism. But, it is known to be genetically transferred, meaning that genes play a role. Research is being conducted to see if infections at birth or the surrounding environment such as exposure to certain chemicals (not the emotional environment) have a role to play. Some genetic links to autism include the development of tuberous sclerosis, a disease which is occurs due to the mutation of the TSC2 gene and causes benign tumours in the brain and other vital organs as well as and fragile X syndrome, a condition that causes a range of developmental issues affecting one’s learning abilities and causes cognitive impairment.
At one time, the administration of the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccine in childhood as well as the use of thimerosal, a preservative found in some vaccines, received worldwide coverage as a possible link to autism. However, both epidemiological and biological studies conducted over the years do not support these claims.
Are there certain risk factors associated with autism?
There are certain risk factors that may increase a child’s risk of autism:
- It is believed that if the mother or father is older than the normal child bearing age as directed by their doctor, this could increase their child’s risk of autism.
- If a pregnant woman is exposed to chemicals or specific drugs, her child may be more likely to have autism. This includes consuming alcohol while pregnant, as well as having a metabolic condition such as diabetes or obesity.
What are the signs of autism?
Signs of autism start to show in young children when they are normally between two and six years of age. These signs can include:
- A delay in learning to talk when other children easily grasp speaking.
- Avoidance of eye contact and seeming as though they are physically in pain when you touch them, resulting in them avoiding being touched by other people.
- Adverse reactions to sounds, smells and sights that are normal to others but can be stressful to autism sufferers.
- Repetitive motions such as continuously rocking back and forth, pacing or flapping their hands.
- Seemingly strange responses to objects and people and often expressing a disliking to a change in their patterns and routines. They may react aggressively or even resort to self-harm.
- A failure to react to certain objects or people, acting as though they are not aware of them at all.
- Inability to play “make believe” games
- Loss of skills the once had
- Seizures, which normally become prevalent in adolescence.
- Difficulty in communicating with other people.
- Heightened skills in certain areas. These may include: drawing, music, mathematics and even a unique ability to remember facts. In these cases, children test higher in written exams.
- Poor coordination in movement such as running, this is because the condition can affect large muscles in the body, causing them to work differently.
How does autism affect the brain?
Autism affects the area of the brain that is responsible for controlling emotions, body movement and communication. Some children with autism may develop a larger head than normal as the result of problems related to the growth of the brain.
How is autism diagnosed?
Should a parent feel as though their infant may be at risk for autism, a doctor or medical professional will conduct behavioural and developmental assessments as well as comprehensive diagnostic evaluations over time, as there is no single medical test to identify autism, although researchers are trying to determine if brain scans can be used as a practical means of diagnosis.
Autism is often a difficult diagnosis to make and it is therefore important to screen for diagnosis at an early age in order to ensure proper treatment. While diagnosis by an experienced medical professional can generally be made by the age of two, some children do not show signs of autism until preschool (kindergarten), or even primary school and therefore do not get the treatment and special care they need.
Most doctors will recommend screening children for autism at nine months old.
Autism check-ups are then needed again at 18 months, 24 months and follow-ups are conducted as needed as per the diagnosis.
Your doctor will check the infant or child’s response to the parents’ actions and voices. As an infant, an average child should react through facial expressions or babbling noises, in autistic cases there may be no reaction to a parent’s voice.
It is common that children with autism will only speak at a later stage than their peers, although a host of other reasons for delayed speech exist, including deafness, thus a hearing test may also be conducted to ensure that the child is hearing the voices around him/her.
Then, if the child can hear perfectly, further tests may be conducted in order to properly diagnose the condition. It is important to note that delayed speech alone, is not a sole indicator of autism.
Lack of social skills
A child who has difficulty interacting with other children on an ongoing basis while also exhibiting other signs of the disorder, may be diagnosed with autism. This is because one of the primary markers of autism involves not being able to relate to other people and respond accordingly.
Should your child be diagnosed with autism, it is important to get a psychologist to confirm the diagnosis and assist you in identifying social issues associated with the disorder and how to help your child deal with these. These issues may include children avoiding eye contact or focusing intently on a specific object or ignoring others for long periods of time.
Their communication may also lack use of facial expressions or body language. Autistic children may also speak in a disrupted or a robotic way.
What are the treatment options for autism?
Depending on the severity of the diagnosis, there are a variety of treatment options available for children with autism. However, there is no cure for autism. The most effective forms of treatment are behavioural interventions that begin at an early age in order to better the outlook for the child.
Therapies to help improve the behaviour of autistic children are used worldwide, helping the children to effectively communicate, talk and develop physically in order to interact with other people.
These programs, called Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), try to encourage positive actions and show children the difference between positive and negative actions. Instructors may also use picture cards for visual cues.
It is important to find a school that is willing to help or one that is specifically designed for autistic children. These implement speech therapy and also develop specific lessons and programs for the child. It is always best to try and get the best care and education possible for a child with autism in order for them to learn and grow in a way that is appropriate for them and not overwhelming or traumatic, therefore allowing them to be in an environment that is accepting and understanding of their condition.
There is no specific medication for autism, however, medication can play a role in improving some of the symptoms of the disorder. Anti-psychotic medication aids in aggressive and more serious behavioural problems while anti-depressant drugs can assist patients experiencing mood swings and depression in some cases. However, a child’s response to any medication should always be closely monitored.
Sensory Integrational Treatment
As previously discussed, autistic children may react aggressively or strangely to sounds, taste, touch, smells and sights – this is quite similar to a condition known as sensory integration disorder. A recent study has shown that children who learn to deal with their reactions to their environment, such as being frightened by loud noises for example, and are helped to adjust to specific surroundings, have had fewer autistic characteristics than others.
Assistive Technology Treatment
Technology such as specific programs and apps have been designed for autistic children and help aid nonverbal children with autism in their communication with others. One such program is Tap to Talk, an expensive but well worth it application available for most tablets and smart phones. It allows autistic children to type in what they want to say, which the app will then pronounce verbally for them, this helps them with pronunciation and communication. Tablets and computers alone can also act as platforms to help children to learn and develop their abilities with visual cues and more. Games and puzzles on these platforms also help to engage cognitive functions and patience.
Autistic children may also suffer from digestive issues and about 30% of diagnosed children may resort to eating non-food items such as sand, paper or dirt.
This is known as the disorder pica – the unusual craving to eat items such as clay, dirt or clay. Autistic children tend to eat these sorts of items in an attempt to understand and explore their environment.
It is sometimes beneficial to include supplements such as magnesium, aiding in muscle functions and calcium balance and vitamin B6 to help protect the immune system in the diet of an autistic child.
However, there is no evidence as yet that shows a drastic improvement in the symptoms of autism due to a specific diet. But, it is always beneficial to follow a good nutritional plan as directed by your doctor.
Dealing with an autistic child
In the past, autism was viewed as a widely misunderstood and inadequately treated condition. With advances in medical research, technology and educational systems, society has adjusted and learned far more about the disorder in recent years, allowing us to accept, better treat, and live with the condition.
It is important to remember that it is a common condition and if diagnosed early, it can be treated to help improve the symptoms and help a child adjust and learn according to their abilities. As a parent, the best thing to do is be understanding, patient and supportive when it comes to special care and treatment. As previously discussed, a child may be different to others in common areas such as communication and social interaction, but they may, in some cases, also display extraordinary capabilities in the areas of the arts and mathematics.
Commonly asked questions regarding autism …
Do childhood vaccines cause autism?
Autism was previously thought to be the result of vaccines; however, this study has since been proven wrong. The report published in 1998 stated that vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella may have a direct link to autism. This has since been retracted by the Lancet medical journal for containing a lack of scientific proof. It has been considered a case of fraud.
Because of this finding, many people still believe that vaccines cause autism, however, this assumption is not scientifically proven or justified.
Is autism a common condition?
Autism is found in patients worldwide. It has nothing to do with culture, race or financial status. It is five times more common in boys than girls, estimating that one in 68 children have the condition according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Does a child’s psychological environment cause autism?
Research has shown that the psychological environment of the child, how they are treated during childhood, does not have a direct link to autism.
When does a child start to show signs of autism?
Autism first shows signs in young children. Signs are normally prevalent when the child is between 24 months and 6 years of age. However possible screening for the condition is suggested at nine months of age.
Is there a cure for autism?
There is no cure for autism. Early diagnosis (at nine months of age or as soon as possible), proper treatment and lifestyle implementations should be taken in order to ensure the child can learn and adapt to autism.