One percent of the population of children in the U.S. ages 3-17 has an autism spectrum disorder. Prevalence is estimated at 1 in 110 births. The most common feature of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is impaired social interaction. As early as infancy, a baby with ASD may be unresponsive to people or focus intently on one item for long periods of time. A child with ASD may appear to develop normally and then withdraw and become indifferent to social interactions.
Children with an ASD may fail to respond to their names and often 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.
Many children with ASD 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 ASD don’t know how to play with other children. Some speak in a singsong voice about a narrow range of favorite topics, with little regard for the interests of the person to whom they are speaking.
Children with characteristics of an ASD may have co-occurring conditions, including Fragile X syndrome (which causes mental retardation), tuberous sclerosis, epileptic seizures, Tourette syndrome, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder. About 20 to 30 percent of children with an ASD develop epilepsy by the time they reach adulthood.et. ASD varies widely in severity and symptoms and may go unrecognized, especially in mildly affected children.
Healthcare providers will often use a questionnaire or other screening instrument to gather information about a child’s development and behavior. Some rely solely on parent observations, while others rely on a combination of parent and doctor observations. If screening instruments indicate the possibility of an ASD, a more comprehensive evaluation is usually done.
A comprehensive evaluation requires a multidisciplinary team, including a psychologist, neurologist, psychiatrist, speech therapist, and other professionals who diagnose children with ASDs. 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 an ASD, children with delayed speech development should also have their hearing tested. Children with autistic behaviors but well-developed language skills are often diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.
Scientists aren’t certain about what causes ASD, but it’s likely that both genetics and environment play a role. Researchers have identified a number of genes associated with the disorder. Studies of people with ASD have found irregularities in several regions of the brain. Other studies suggest that people with ASD have abnormal levels of serotonin or other neurotransmitters in the brain. These abnormalities suggest that ASD could result from the disruption of normal brain development early in fetal development caused by defects in genes that control brain growth and that regulate how brain cells communicate with each other, possibly due to the influence of environmental factors on gene function. These findings are preliminary and require further study. The theory that parental practices are responsible for ASD has long been disproved.
Twin and family studies strongly suggest that some people have a genetic predisposition to autism. Identical twin studies show that if one twin is affected, there is up to a 90 percent chance the other twin will be affected. There are a number of studies in progress to determine the specific genetic factors associated with the development of ASD. In families with one child with ASD, the risk of having a second child with the disorder is approximately 5 percent. This is greater than the risk for the general population. Evidence also suggests that some emotional disorders, such as bipolar disorder, occur more frequently than average in the families of people with ASD.
There is no cure for ASDs. 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 meet the specific needs of individual children. Most health care professionals agree that the earlier the intervention, the better.
Doctors may prescribe medications for treatment of specific autism-related symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Antipsychotic medications are used to treat severe behavioral problems. Seizures can be treated with one or more anticonvulsant drugs.
There are a number of controversial therapies or interventions available, but few are supported by scientific studies. Parents should use caution before adopting any unproven treatments.
For more information go to autism-society.org. Walker County has an autism/Asperger’s support group that meets every first Tuesday of the month at Second Baptist Church in LaFayette at 6:30 p.m. Contact Alicia Moore at Second Baptist Church, 706-638-2732, for more details.
Pam Rasmussen is a resident of LaFayette. She is a mother of a child with Spina Bifida and an advocate of special needs children and adults. She can be contacted at email@example.com.