Autism refers to a range of neurodevelopment disorders that are characterized by communication difficulties, repetitive stereotyped patterns of behaviour, and social impairments. Autistic disorder, sometimes called classical Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or just Autism, is the most severe form of ASD. There are other milder conditions along the spectrum known as disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder and Asperger syndrome. ASD occurs in all socioeconomic and ethnic groups.
Some Common Signs of Autism
Infants with ASD tend to be unresponsive to people or they focus entirely on one item to the exclusion of others for a long period of time. The child may appear to grow normally but then later become indifferent and withdraw from any form of social engagement.
The child may also fail to respond to his/her name and often avoid eye contact with other people. They may lack empathy and also have difficulty interpreting what others are feeling or thinking because they can’t understand social cues such as facial expressions or tone of voice and don’t watch other people’s faces for clues about appropriate behaviour.
Children with an ASD sometimes engage in repetitive movements or in self-abusive behavior such as head-banging or biting. They also tend to start speaking later than other children and may refer to themselves by name instead of “me” or “I.” Some of them 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. They also don’t know how to play interactively with other children.
How Autism is Diagnosed
Autism Spectrum Disorder varies widely in severity and symptoms and may go unrecognized, especially when it is masked by more debilitating handicaps or in mildly affected children. Very early indicators that require evaluation by an expert include:
• No single words by 16 months or two-word phrases by age 2
• No babbling or pointing by age 1
• Loss of language or social skills
• No response to name
• No smiling or social responsiveness.
• Poor eye contact
• Excessive lining up of toys or objects
Later indicators include:
• Impairment or absence of imaginative and social play
• Inability to make friends
• Repetitive or unusual use of language
• Impaired ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others
• Inflexible adherence to specific routines or rituals.
• Patterns of interest that are restricted and that are abnormal in intensity or focus
• Having keen interest in certain objects or subjects
Health experts will often use a questionnaire or other screening instrument to gather information about a child’s development and behavior. But a comprehensive evaluation requires a multidisciplinary team, including a psychiatrist, speech therapist, psychologist, neurologist, and other professionals who diagnose children with ASDs.
Causes of Autism
It is not certain what causes autism but scientists believe environment and genetics play some role in development of this condition. Researchers have identified a number of genes associated with the disorder. Other studies have also found that that people with ASD have abnormal levels of serotonin or other neurotransmitters in the brain.
How is Autism Treated?
It is sad to note that there’s no cure for ASDs. Behavioural interventions and therapies are just designed to remedy specific symptoms and can bring substantial improvement. A treatment plan that is ideal will coordinate interventions and therapies that meet specific needs of individual children.