As per the latest statistics by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released this year, a growing number of children were being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Every 1 in 36 children was diagnosed with the disorder, thereby affecting 2.8% of all eight-year-olds in the country.
However, it’s actually a good sign!
Well, the increased diagnosis of autism does not mean that the disorder is getting more common. Instead, it’s a sign that a growing number of parents, caregivers, and doctors were getting better at spotting the early signs of autism, which have otherwise been overlooked prior to these years.
The increase in autism awareness, coupled with improved screening and greater access to healthcare, has meant that historically oppressed communities and individuals now have the agency to get an ASD diagnosis.
This is why understanding and unmasking autism spectrum disorder is important. It empowers you with knowledge and awareness to help your loved ones when required. To help you get started, here’s a breakdown of what autism is, along with its signs, symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and available treatment options.
But before we get started, here’s something important.
Mental and neurological health are diverse and complex. They exist on a spectrum, and every individual has their own experiences. Therefore, don’t start diagnosing yourself with the knowledge you get by reading a few articles on the Internet (though we are incredibly grateful to you for stopping by to enhance your understanding of an important topic). If you find this article helpful or resonate with the symptoms explained in it, consider this as the beginning of your journey of getting the right help.
That’s it. Let’s dive in!
What Is The Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism spectrum disorder is a broad group of neurodevelopment disorders. It affects an individual in two significant ways. Firstly, people with autism face challenges while communicating or interacting socially. Secondly, it can cause children to indulge in repetitive behavior patterns and restrict their interests. A combination of these autism symptoms can affect a person’s life, making it difficult for them to function regularly.
Children with ASD are born with the condition. The early signs of autism manifest when they are 12-18 months old. However, they might not be visible until the child grows up and eventually has difficulties interacting with others.
Autism affects people across the world equally, irrespective of their ethnicity, nationality, or race. However, as per Autism Speaks, it is four times more likely to affect boys than girls.
The condition occurs on a spectrum. It means that there’s a wide range of autism symptoms that differ in severity. The social, communication, and sensory needs of people with ASD are diverse and affect the way they look at and interact with the world around them.
What Are The Original Five Types Of Autism?
Prior to 2013, the medical community categorized autism into five different types. Since many people are familiar with these types of autism, let’s first take a look at them.
Here are the five original types of autism:
1. Kanner’s syndrome: Also known as classic autism, this type was diagnosed in infants who did not seem interested in their surroundings and had repetitive behaviors.
2. Asperger’s syndrome: Hans Asperger first deduced the condition as something that significantly impacts how affected individuals interact with others (even with regular language development).
3. Childhood disintegrative disorder: Children who were diagnosed with this form of autism had regular development up to 3-4 years of age. However, they started to miss growth and developmental milestones beyond this age and never regained these skills.
4. Rett syndrome: This condition was more common in children assigned female at birth. Those diagnosed with this condition had decreased growth around the head region, a lack of proper speech development, and trouble with walking.
5. Pervasive developmental disorder: This condition was attributed to people who show signs of autism but did not meet the proper criteria for an ASD diagnosis.
After 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM-V) criteria for autism changed. The change is reflected in the signs and symptoms of autism and the way it is diagnosed. Let’s look at how autism is currently characterized.
What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Autism?
The current classification of autism symptoms and diagnosis is more inclusive. It includes all the previous types of autism but does not name the symptoms. Instead, the signs of autism are divided into two categories.
1. Communication and social interaction
The symptoms of autism can include a vast range of communication issues that usually begin before the age of five. These include:
- Trouble maintaining eye contact
- Does not like hugging, cuddling, or physical contact
- Wants to play alone
- Not responding to their name
- Not displaying any facial emotion
- Not communicating using hand gestures or motions
- Having difficulty communicating how they feel
- Not sharing interests with others
- Have trouble reading the body language of others
- Sound like a robot while speaking
- Put words in the wrong order or repeat them
2. Repetitive or restricted behavioral patterns
Apart from the above-mentioned communication issues, children with autism also have several bodily and behavioral symptoms. These include:
- Repetitive movements like spinning, running back and forth, flapping hands, etc.
- Repeating words or phrases
- Lining up things in an order and getting extremely agitated if the order is distorted
- Focusing on small details
- Getting upset over seemingly minor changes
- Having obsessive interests
- Unusual responses to sensory inputs like tastes, smells, sounds, etc.
What Are The Causes Of Autism?
There are no strictly defined causes of autism spectrum disorder. However, recent research has demonstrated several risk factors associated with the condition. These include the following:
- Having a family history of autism
- Low birth weight
- Genetic mutations
- Genetic disorders like fragile X syndrome
- Imbalances in metabolism
- Being born to parents who are older in age
- Exposure to heavy metals
As per research by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), both environmental and genetic factors have been identified as potential causes of autism.
How Is ASD Diagnosed In Children?
An autism diagnosis involves the following three steps:
1. Developmental screening
As per directions by the American Academy of Pediatrics, all children are supposed to undergo an ASD screening at 18 and 24 months of age. This screening helps spot the early signs of autism in children. Since early diagnosis and interventions are keys to proper treatment, these screenings are extremely efficient and essential.
Pediatricians use screening tools and parental questionnaires to identify children who might be at a higher risk of developing ASD. However, a mere screening does not equate to an ASD diagnosis.
2. Further Screenings And Tests
For further information, your healthcare provider might suggest the following tests:
- DNA tests for genetic evaluation
- Behavior evaluation tests
- Occupational therapy screening
- Visual and auditory tests to rule out any sensory issues
- Developmental questionnaires
3. Getting an ASD diagnosis
Finally, a team of specialists looks at the results of all screenings and tests to diagnose ASD. This team can include:
- Speech pathologists
- Child psychologists or psychiatrists
What Are The Available Treatment Options?
There’s no cure for ASD. However, several autism spectrum disorder treatment options can help children manage their symptoms.
Several forms of autism therapy are efficient for children. These include:
1. Applied behavior analysis (ABA): This form of autism therapy has been highly beneficial for kids. It teaches them communication skills and helps reduce negative behaviors like hurting themselves or others.
2. Occupational therapy (OT): This therapy as treatment of autism helps children learn regular life skills. It usually involves motor skills, managing sensitivity to sensory input, and much more.
3. Speech or physical therapy: This type of autism therapy aims to help a child with autism with their verbal communication and physical movements.
Apart from therapy, medications are also used to help children with autism. While there are no specified medications for ASD, healthcare providers might use the following to deal with anxiety, attention issues, depression, and other symptoms associated with the condition:
- selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs),
- stimulants, and
- anti-anxiety medications.
Disclaimer: The above-suggested medications should only be used after proper diagnosis and discussion with professionals. Unregulated use can be life-threatening.
Several alternative treatments for autism have come up during this time. However, there’s little to no scientific backing for them. Some of these treatments are highly dangerous and even borderline life-threatening. Therefore, it’s extremely important that you connect with a qualified healthcare provider before starting any such treatments.
Autism spectrum disorder refers to a wide range of neurodevelopmental disorders. It affects a person’s daily life by symptoms that mainly affect their communication skills and cause repetitive or restrictive behaviors.
An increase in autism awareness translates to a greater understanding of the condition. This, in turn, equips parents and caregivers to reach out for early treatment and interventions for their child, which can be life-changing in the long run. We hope this blog post will serve as an integral starting point in helping you understand what autism is.
The mainstream knowledge about ASD is burdened with many myths and misconceptions. Let’s debunk the most common misconceptions associated with autism.
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