Autism – Most commonly diagnosed childhood developmental disorder1now falls under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This revision occurred because, although symptoms of the following disorders are similar, there is a broad range in severity and other features. ASD's include:

  • Autism

  • Asperger Syndrome

  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder, not otherwise specified

  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

  • Rett Syndrome

ASD's are characterized by impaired social interactions, issues with verbal and non-verbal communication, repetitive behaviors, and severely limited activities and interests2.

Recent statistics note these disorders occur in about 1 in 88 children (1.14%) and is two to four times more common among boys than girls3. Government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education, indicate a 10-17% increase in ASD diagnoses each year4.

Symptoms:

The severity of symptoms can range from mild to severe in the following categories:

  • Social communications and interactions

  • Behavior, interests, and activities

Symptoms generally exhibit themselves before a child reaches the age of three. Specific indicators include:

  • Failure to respond to their name

  • Avoiding eye contact with others

  • Not understanding social cues

  • Repetitive movements including rocking, spinning, jumping, hand flapping

  • Self-abusive behaviors such as hand biting or head banging

  • Repetition of words spoken to them (Echolia)

  • Resistance to change

  • Over or under reaction to sensations such as odors, tastes, pain, sounds, temperatures

About 50% of children diagnosed with ASD will also have an intellectual disability, 25% will develop seizures, and approximately 30% will have physical signs such as small heads (microcephaly), features that differ from the parents, or structural brain malformations5.

Causes

No specific causes of ASD have been found but general risk factors are:

  • Genetics – studies show the prevalence of ASD in siblings of autistic children is 15 to 30 times greater than the general population, with brothers having the higher risk

  • Prenatal factors such as viral infections, gestational diabetes, maternal/paternal age over 30, use of prescription medication

  • Nervous system abnormalities

  • Environmental factors6

Diagnoses

Clinicians face challenges when diagnosing ASD such as the varying degrees of symptoms and having to differentiate between the different disorders. Usually a reliable diagnosis can be made by the time a child is two years old7.

Specific parameters for diagnosis include a two step process:

  • General screening by a pediatrician or early childhood healthcare provider. Children that exhibit developmental concerns are referred for second stage evaluation

  • The second stage involves a team of doctors and health specialists, in conjunction with parents and teachers, utilizing various psychological assessment tools8

Treatment /Prognosis

A cure has not been found nor has a single treatment been recommended, however options have been identified to minimize symptoms and maximize learning.

  • Behavior therapy helps reinforce acceptable behavior and reduce unacceptable ones

  • Speech, occupational, and physical therapy can address and improve communication skills, social interactions, motor control and balance

  • Educational options include a team to develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to guide a child through high school

  • Medications may treat some associated symptoms and should be used in conjunction with the above treatments9

Symptoms of ASD persist throughout life. Prognosis is strongly influenced by how much usable language the child acquires early in life. It is important to note that although there is no cure, ASD symptoms can be managed and shaped at an age as early as preschool10. As with all development disabilities, early intervention is the key and can have positive effects on development later in life.

1National Human Genome Research Institute, “Learning About Autism” updated 10/22/2012

2National Human Genome Research Institute, “Learning About Autism” updated 10/22/2012

3Merck Manuals, “Autism Spectrum Disorders” Last revision 11/2013

4National Human Genome Research Institute, “Learning About Autism” updated 10/22/2012

5National Human Genome Research Institute, “Learning About Autism” updated 10/22/2012

6Wikipedia, “Autism Spectrum” Last edit 11/2014

7Wikipedia, “Autism Spectrum” Last edit 11/2014

8NIH Medlife Plus, “Autism Spectrum Disorders, Treatment and Research” winter 2013, Vol 7, Number 4

9NIH Medlife Plus, “Autism Spectrum Disorders, Treatment and Research” winter 2013, Vol 7, Number 4

10NIH Medlife Plus, “Autism Spectrum Disorders, Treatment and Research” winter 2013, Vol 7, Number 4