According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, autism is autism spectrum disorder (ASD) which is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior. Autistic disorder, sometimes called autism or classical ASD, is the most severe form of ASD, while other conditions along the spectrum include a milder form known as Asperger syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (usually referred to as PDD-NOS). Although ASD varies significantly in character and severity, it occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and affects every age group. Experts estimate that 1 out of 88 children age 8 will have an ASD (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, March 30, 2012). Males are four times more likely to have an ASD than females.
Understanding and treating autism is an important tool for any family affected by the disorder. Additionally, family members need to ensure they receive the proper care to sustain themselves so as to be fully present for their loved one.
Signs of Autism
The hallmark feature of ASD is impaired social interaction. As early as infancy, a baby with ASD may be unresponsive to people or focus intently on one item to the exclusion of others for long periods of time. A child with ASD may appear to develop normally and then withdraw and become indifferent to social engagement.
Children with an ASD may fail to respond to their names and often avoid eye contact with other people. They have difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling because they can’t understand social cues, such as tone of voice or facial expressions, and don’t watch other people’s faces for clues about appropriate behavior. They may lack empathy.
Many children with an ASD engage in repetitive movements such as rocking and twirling, or in self-abusive behavior such as biting or head-banging. They also tend to start speaking later than other children and may refer to themselves by name instead of “I” or “me.” Children with an ASD don’t know how to play interactively with other children. Some speak in a sing-song voice about a narrow range of favorite topics, with little regard for the interests of the person to whom they are speaking.
Children with characteristics of an ASD may have co-occurring conditions, including Fragile X syndrome (which causes mental retardation), tuberous sclerosis, epileptic seizures, Tourette syndrome, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder. About 20 to 30 percent of children with an ASD develop epilepsy by the time they reach adulthood.
No Cure Available but…
There is no cure for ASDs. Therapies and behavioral interventions are designed to remedy specific symptoms and can bring about substantial improvement. The ideal treatment plan coordinates therapies and interventions that meet the specific needs of individual children. Most health care professionals agree that the earlier the intervention, the better.
Educational/behavioral interventions: Therapists use highly structured and intensive skill-oriented training sessions to help children develop social and language skills, such as Applied Behavioral Analysis. Family counseling for the parents and siblings of children with an ASD often helps families cope with the particular challenges of living with a child with an ASD.
Medications: Doctors may prescribe medications for treatment of specific autism-related symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Antipsychotic medications are used to treat severe behavioral problems. Seizures can be treated with one or more anticonvulsant drugs. Medication used to treat people with attention deficit disorder can be used effectively to help decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity.
Other therapies: There are a number of controversial therapies or interventions available, but few, if any, are supported by scientific studies. Parents should use caution before adopting any unproven treatments. Although dietary interventions have been helpful in some children, parents should be careful that their child’s nutritional status is carefully followed.
Parents of newly-diagnosed children, however, will often ask, ‘Is there a cure?’. There is currently no known ‘cure’ for autism. This does not mean that nothing can be done to help a person with autism. Our understanding of autism has grown tremendously since it was first identified in the 1940s, and as we learn more about the condition, more interventions will undoubtedly become available. Because autism is a ‘spectrum’ disorder it affects different people in different ways. It is therefore very difficult to generalize about how a person with autism will develop over time. It is particularly important to realize that an intervention which works well with one individual may not be appropriate or effective with another.
The symptoms and characteristics of autism can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations. Both children and adults can exhibit any combination of autistic behaviors in varying degrees of severity. This means that two children, both with the same diagnosis, can act very differently from one another and have varying skills.
Contrary to what many people imagine, however, some children and adults with autism may make eye contact, show affection, smile and laugh, and demonstrate a variety of other emotions. Some go on to hold down responsible employment, have relationships with others, marry and raise children. Like anyone else, people with autism respond to their environment in both positive and negative ways and change as they mature. Many people with autism have an ability to focus on detail and may have good powers of concentration on a single activity provided it is of interest to them. This means they can often achieve a very high level of skill in a particular area. Children with autism can be especially good at learning facts, skills and talents. People with autism tend to be very honest and, if communication skills develop, will report things very accurately and openly.
Black and Hispanic Children More Likely to Regress than Whites
Described as developmental regression, this loss of language, motor or social skills occurs more often in black and Hispanic children compared to white children, according to a study to be presented Tuesday, May 6, at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Researchers analyzed data on 1,353 preschool children with autism enrolled in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network database between March 2008 and December 2011. The database includes demographic and medical information on each child enrolled at one of 17 locations across the United States and Canada. Information collected included whether parents reported that their child had lost skills.
Results showed that 27 percent of children experienced developmental regression according to their parents. Black children were twice as likely to have parent-reported regression compared to white children. Hispanic children were about 1.5 times more likely than white children to lose early skills according to their parents. This difference was apparent even when researchers controlled for primary caretaker’s education and the child’s insurance status. (Study provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics).
For more information on how a human’s social psychology works, visit our course, Social Psychology – A Video Textbook, to get a deeper understanding of what autistic children are dealing with.