Autism spectrum disorders represent a range of brain disorders that are characterized by restricted patterns of behavior and impairments in social communication and interactions. Autistic disorder commonly referred to as autism, is the most prevalent ASD and severely impairs a child’s social interaction and communication abilities.
ASDs are usually evident by the age of 3 though a diagnosis may be made as early as 12 to 18 months and as late as 4 to 6 years (or later). ASDs are three to four times more common in boys than in girls. However, girls with these disorders tend to have more severe symptoms. Some children will need ongoing supervision, while others, with the right support, may pursue higher education and fulfilling jobs. These disorders affect people of all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. To date, no biological diagnostic tests exist that detected autism. Formal diagnosis involves parental input and structured and systematic screening instruments, such as the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) and the Autism Behavioral Checklist (ABC) for older children.
Red flag signs of ASD at 12 months:
- Not responding to one’s name;
- not sharing interests through pointing and eye gaze;
- lack of joyful expression;
- an absence of babbling;
- difficulty establishing eye contact;
- and staring too long at inanimate objects.
Signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorders: Social skills
Basic social interaction can be difficult for children with autism spectrum disorders. Symptoms may include:
- Unusual or inappropriate body language, gestures, and facial expressions (e.g. avoiding eye contact or using facial expressions that don’t match what he or she is saying).
- Lack of interest in other people or in sharing interests or achievements (e.g. showing you a drawing, pointing to a bird).
- Unlikely to approach others or to pursue social interaction; comes across as aloof and detached; prefers to be alone.
- Difficulty understanding other people’s feelings, reactions, and nonverbal cues.
- Resistance to being touched.
- Difficulty or failure to make friends with children the same age.
Signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorders: Speech and language
Problems with speech and language comprehension are a telltale sign of the autism spectrum disorders. Symptoms may include:
- Delay in learning how to speak (after the age of 2) or doesn’t talk at all.
- Speaking in an abnormal tone of voice, or with an odd rhythm or pitch.
- Repeating words or phrases over and over without communicative intent.
- Trouble starting a conversation or keeping it going.
- Difficulty communicating needs or desires.
- Doesn’t understand simple statements or questions.
- Taking what is said too literally, missing humor, irony, and sarcasm.
Signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorders: Restricted behavior and play
Children with autism spectrum disorders are often restricted, rigid, and even obsessive in their behaviors, activities, and interests. Symptoms may include:
- Repetitive body movements (hand flapping, rocking, spinning); moving constantly.
- Obsessive attachment to unusual objects (rubber bands, keys, light switches).
- Preoccupation with a specific topic of interest, often involving numbers or symbols (maps, license plates, sports statistics).
- A strong need for sameness, order, and routines (e.g. lines up toys, follows a rigid schedule). Gets upset by the change in their routine or environment.
- Clumsiness, abnormal posture, or odd ways of moving.
- Fascinated by spinning objects, moving pieces, or parts of toys (e.g. spinning the wheels on a race car, instead of playing with the whole car)
Some combination of genetic, biological and environmental factors is believed to cause ASDs. Researchers are exploring several genes which are believed to contribute to the development of these disorders as well as several brain regions that have been linked to the disorders. Abnormal brain development during the first months of life is being studied to determine if structural abnormalities.
Treatment for ASDs
There is no one treatment for ASDs; however, it is widely accepted that the earliest interventions allow the best outcomes. Treatments generally address both cognitive and behavioral functioning. They may include a combination of medications (for challenging behaviors), behavioral therapy, psycho-education, family support groups, educational interventions, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and specialized training to develop and improve acquisition of necessary skills. It has been found that structured multidisciplinary behavioral programs are more successful. Parental involvement, a predictable schedule, regular behavior reinforcement and active engagement of attention in highly structured activities to enhance a strength or ability may all contribute to creating an effective treatment program.