Does your baby resist cuddling or making eye contact with you? Are you concerned that your little one isn’t responding to his or her name? Does your toddler rock back and forth repetitively? These are all hallmark signs of autism, which is a brain disorder that impairs social and communication skills.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are a group of neurodevelopment disorders caused by a problem within the brain. The symptoms of ASD appear in early childhood, usually by the age of 3. ASDs include autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Autism is the most common of the ASD disorders, characterized by difficulty communicating and interacting with others. People with autism process information differently than others, and are presented with social and behavioral challenges. Children diagnosed with Asperger’s have no speech delay and usually have good language and cognitive skills. In the United States, the number of children diagnosed with autism seems to be on the rise; scientists are unclear if this is due to an increase in better detection, an increase in incidence, or a combination of the two. It is estimated that one out of every 110 children is diagnosed with autism. Even though there is no cure, early detection and intensive therapy can be very effective tools for helping children who are affected by the disorder.
Common Signs of Autism
Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each child experiences the disorder differently and symptoms can range from mild to severe. Most individuals have trouble interacting with others. The signs of autism generally appear before the age of 3, and stay with a person throughout their life; they can, however, improve with time and treatment. Some parents notice signs as early as when an infant is a few months old. While not too common, there are children who develop normally in the beginning (for the first few years), and then suddenly regress, losing language skills and becoming withdrawn. Common signs of autism include:
Unresponsive to people. Focuses intently on one object only for extended periods of time. This can be observed in some infants.
Not responding to their name by the age of 12 months.
Not playing “make believe” or pretend by the age of 18 months.
Having delayed speech/language skills.
Indifference to social interaction.
Avoidance of eye contact.
Difficulty understanding social cues, including facial expressions or tone of voice.
Lacking in empathy.
Engaging in repetitive rocking or twirling behavior, or flapping of hands.
Self-abuse, such as biting or hitting their head against a wall.
Repetition of words; a condition known as echolalia.
Becoming distressed by minor changes in routine.
Children that have autism can also have other co-occurring conditions such as epileptic seizures, fragile X syndrome (a family of genetic conditions that result in mental impairment), attention deficit disorders, and learning disabilities.
There is not one single cause of autism. Rather, scientists believe that there are many causes, especially given the complex nature of the disorder as well as the variety of each child’s symptoms and experiences. Researchers look to the following when getting to the root of autism:
Genetics: It appears that several genes are factors for the cause of autism; some might make a child more vulnerable to the disorder, while others might negatively influence brain communication and development. Researchers think that some of these genetic factors are inherited, while others are not. Children who have a sibling or parent with ASD have a higher chance of developing autism; this higher incidence supports researcher’s theory of a genetic component.
Brain Structure: The brains of children with autism are shaped and structured differently than children without the disorder. Abnormalities in function and structure are believed to play a role in autism.
Environmental Factors: Scientists are investigating whether or not environmental factors play a role in developing autism. It is theorized that air pollution and/or viral infections may be a factor in the disorder.
Vaccines and Autism
One issue that has been given a great deal of publicity is whether a link exists between autism and childhood vaccines. One study in particular, published in 1998 in the British medical journal The Lancet, created a scare when it implied a link between the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and autism. However, researchers later discovered that the author of the study committed fraud by altering the data and determined the link between the MMR vaccine and autism was unfounded.
Of particular concern has been thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in some vaccines. No scientifically reliable study has found a link between thimerosal and autism; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Medical Association (AMA), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) all strongly agree that vaccines are safe. In addition, vaccine manufacturers have removed thimerosal or reduced it to trace amounts in all vaccines routinely recommended for children six years of age and younger.
Not vaccinating your child exposes them to potentially deadly illnesses that are otherwise preventable. Children who are not immunized are far more susceptible to pertussis (whooping cough) and measles when an outbreak occurs. The CDC has outlined a vaccination schedule that is believed to best protect your child.
Unfortunately, there is no simple lab test or blood work to diagnose autism. This can make diagnosis tricky. Pediatricians rely on developmental and behavioral cues and milestones to make a determination if your child has the signs of autism. If any red flags are noted, you will be referred to an autism specialist for further evaluation. Specialists might include a developmental pediatrician, a child neurologist, or a child psychologist. This person will observe your child’s behavior and ask you detailed questions about his or her behavior, language, and social skills. It is common for autism to be recognized and diagnosed as early as 18 months of age.
Treatment and Early Intervention
Early intervention for children with autism before the age of three is instrumental in reducing the symptoms of the disorder. The younger the brain, the more malleable it is, and intensive early treatment can yield very positive results. Early treatment can help your young child learn to walk, talk, and socialize with his or her peers. There is no one single “go to” therapy; different treatments work better for different children. Some choices that you should discuss with your doctor include:
Behavior & Communication Therapies: These types of therapies provide structure and a sense of organization for your child, and family participation is encouraged.
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): ABA seeks to improve a wide range of skills by encouraging positive behaviors while discouraging less desirable ones.
Occupational Therapy: Children learn how to dress themselves, eat, and other life skills; the goal is to teach them how to be as independent as possible.
Speech Therapy: In this type of therapy, children learn how to improve communication skills.
Sensory Integration Therapy: For children who are upset by certain sensory stimuli; sensory integration therapy helps them cope with touch, sight, and smell.
Medication: While there is not a medication that can cure autism, there are drugs that can aid in curbing the symptoms. In some cases, antipsychotics are prescribed to control serious behavior problems, while antidepressants are sometimes used to help anxiety. Other medicines might help with hyperactivity, seizures, or difficulty focusing.
While there is no cure for autism, early detection is key. Once your child has been diagnosed, prompt treatment can begin to help manage the symptoms of this disorder.