Facts About Autism

What is Autism
Autism (sometimes called "classical autism") is the most common condition in a group of developmental disorders known as the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Autism is characterized by impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and unusual, repetitive, or severely limited activities and interests.  Other ASDs include Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (usually referred to as PDD-NOS). Experts estimate that three to six children out of every 1,000 will have autism.  Males are four times more likely to have autism than females.

Common Behaviors Of Autism
There are three distinctive behaviors that characterize autism. Autistic children have difficulties with social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or narrow, obsessive interests.  These behaviors can range in impact from mild to disabling.

Hallmark feature of Autism 

  1. Children with Autism may fail to respond to their name and avoid eye contact with other people. They have difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling because they can't understand social cues, such as tone of voice or facial expressions, and don't watch other people's faces for clues about appropriate behavior. They lack empathy. 
  2. Many children with autism engage in repetitive movements such as rocking and twirling, or in self-abusive behavior such as biting or head-banging.  They also tend to start speaking later than other children and may refer to themselves by name instead of "I" or "me."  Children with autism don't know how to play with other children. Some 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. 
  3. Many children with autism have a reduced sensitivity to pain, but are abnormally sensitive to sound, touch, or other sensory stimulation. These unusual reactions may contribute to behavioral symptoms such as a resistance to being cuddled or hugged.   

Can Autism Be Unrecognized
Autism varies widely in its severity and symptoms and can go unrecognized, especially in mildly affected children or when it is masked by more debilitating disabilities. Doctors rely on a core group of behaviors to diagnose autism.

Doctors will often use a questionnaire or other screening instrument to gather information about a child's development and behavior. Some screening instruments rely solely on parent observations; others rely on a combination of parent and doctor observations. If screening instruments indicate the possibility of autism, doctors will ask for a more comprehensive evaluation. It is always safer to ask the doctor specifically if he did screen for autism. Do not assume. Also be honest with your doctor about your child's behavior. 

These indicative behaviors are:    

  • Impaired ability to make friends with peers
  • Impaired ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others
  • Absence or impairment of imaginative and social play
  • Stereotyped, repetitive, or unusual use of language
  • Restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal in intensity or focus
  • Preoccupation with certain objects or subject
  • Inflexible adherence to specific routines or rituals

Risk Factors
For reasons that are still unclear, about 20 to 30 percent of children with autism develop epilepsy by the time they reach adulthood. While people with schizophrenia may show some autistic-like behavior, their symptoms usually do not appear until the late teens or early adulthood. Most people with schizophrenia also have hallucinations and delusions, which are not found in autism. However Autistic Children have a higher risk than normal in developing co-existing disorders such as:

  • Fragile X syndrome (which causes mental retardation)
  • Tuberous 
  • Sclerosis (in which tumors grow on the  brain)
  • Epileptic seizures 
  • Tourette syndrome 
  • Learning disabilities 
  • Attention deficit disorder (ADD)
  • Process of Evaluation For Autism

A comprehensive evaluation requires a multidisciplinary team including a psychologist, neurologist, psychiatrist, speech therapist, and other professionals who diagnose children with Autism. The team members will conduct a thorough neurological assessment and in-depth cognitive and language testing. Because hearing problems can cause behaviors that could be mistaken for autism, children with delayed speech development should also have their hearing tested. After a thorough evaluation, the team usually meets with parents to explain the results of the evaluation and present the diagnosis.

Treatment For Autism
There is no known cure for Autism. Therapies and behavioral interventions are designed to remedy specific symptoms and can bring about substantial improvement. The ideal treatment plan coordinates therapies and interventions that target the core symptoms of autism: impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and obsessive or repetitive routines and interests. Most professionals agree that the earlier the intervention, the better.

Educational/behavioral interventions:
Therapists use highly structured and intensive skill-oriented training sessions to help children develop social and language skills. Family counseling for the parents and siblings of children with autism often helps families cope with the particular challenges of living with an autistic child.

Doctors often prescribe an antidepressant medication to handle symptoms of anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anti-psychotic medications are used to treat severe behavioral problems. Seizures can be treated with one or more of the anticonvulsant drugs. Stimulant drugs, such as those used for children with attention deficit disorder (ADD), are sometimes used effectively to help decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity.

Other Therapies
There are a number of controversial therapies or interventions available for autistic children, but few, if any, are supported by scientific studies. Parents should use caution before adopting any of these treatments.

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