Imagine struggling to communicate and develop relationships with those around you. For many people with autism, this sort of thing is a common occurrence. Raising awareness and support is an important way to help people dealing with this disorder. Learn more about autism with this brief overview.
What is Autism?
Autism is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects an individual’s social interactions and communication skills. It’s called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) because it’s just that, a spectrum. People diagnosed with the illness may display characteristics and symptoms in a variety of combinations along a range from mild to severe. Typically, the illness appears early in life, usually by the age of three, and lasts throughout life.
The word “autism” derives from the Greek “autos” which means “self.” It impacts individuals in different ways depending on their particular set of symptoms. Often, other disabilities appear in combination with the disorder. This can make it more difficult to achieve a proper diagnosis.
Autism in the Population
About one in every 68 births is a child diagnosed with autism, making it the most common developmental disorder. This number continues to grow as the rate of the disorder in the population increases. People of any ethnicity, race, lifestyle, education level, social status, or economic category may suffer from the disorder. The prevalence of the disorder around the world is largely consistent, with boys more likely than girls to be autistic.
Causes of Autism
There isn’t a known cause for autism, but abnormalities in brain function or structure play a role in the disorder. There appears to be some sort of genetic basis since autism tends to run in families. Certain medical conditions, including tuberous sclerosis, untreated phenylketonuria (PKU), and fragile X syndrome, may also indicate a higher likelihood of the disorder. Researchers continue to investigate the cause of the disorder.
Medical professionals observe a person’s behavior, developmental levels, and communication skills to diagnose the disorder. They also gather developmental history from parents, teachers, and other caregivers. Autism shares many characteristics with other disorders, so medical tests may rule out other possibilities, but there isn’t a test specifically for the disorder. Autistic people may display a few or all of the following characteristics to a greater or lesser degree:
- Communication skill delays
- Limited verbal skills
- Use of pointing, leading, or gestures to get desired objects
- Apparent lack of hearing at times even though hearing tests indicate normal hearing
- Fine motor difficulties
- Difficulty running, jumping, or performing other gross motor skills
- Intense focus on objects
- Sensory sensitivities
- Spinning of self or objects
- Narrow, intense interests
- Behaviors that harm self
- Limited eye contact
- Lack of fear around strangers or in dangerous situations
- Difficulty forming friendships with peers
- Not sure how to play or make-believe
The Autism Spectrum
It’s important to keep in mind that autism is a spectrum, and it impacts different people in different ways. Most people with the disorder only have some of the above characteristics, and each symptom may be mild to severe. Many people can lead healthy, productive lives when they are autistic.
One interesting thing about the disorder is that people often improve as they age. This is because illness is non-progressive, meaning that it doesn’t get worse over time. So individuals can improve continuously as they learn to deal with their own particular set of symptoms.
There is no cure for the disorder. There isn’t a specific treatment plan that works for every patient. Instead, the goal of treatment is designing a program that helps the specific child. Highly structured educational programs are often the foundation for an autism treatment plan. In addition, treatment may include:
- Occupational therapy
- Sensory therapy
- Prescription medications
- Physical therapy
- Speech therapy
Early Intervention and Treatment
Diagnosing autism early and beginning treatment right away may increase the chance of positive outcomes. Expect your child’s doctor to ask you questions about their development as part of well-child visits; they are checking for red flags that indicate the need for a more complete evaluation.
Parents can also do their part to aid early diagnosis by watching for the following signs and talking to the doctor if they notice anything suspicious:
- Delayed verbal communication
- Repetitive mannerisms
- Lack of pretend play
- Limited or lack of eye contact
- Obsession with objects
- Lack of interest in relationships with peers
As autism becomes more common in the population, it’s important to learn more about this disorder. A better understanding helps you sympathize with and support people dealing with the illness, which helps improve outcomes for people with the disorder and society as a whole.