Autism is a group of serious developmental problems called autism spectrum disorders (ASD) that appear in early childhood — usually before age 3. Autism impacts the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction, communication skills, and cognitive function. While all autism disorders affect these communication and interaction abilities, the symptoms and severity varies greatly from one child to another.
Persons with autism may also suffer from physical problems such as asthma, epilepsy, digestive disorders, persistent viral infections, feeding disorders and sleep disorders.
Autism is four times more common in boys than in girls. Its ocurrence has climbed to one in 110 children across the United States. The number of children diagnosed with autism has been increasing but it is not clear whether this is due to better detection and reporting of autism or a real increase in the number of cases. While there is no cure for autism, early identification and appropriate treatment is key to improving the outcome for these children.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a whole range of complicated neurodevelopmental disorders, all of which involve impaired social interaction, communication difficulty, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior. Autistic disorder, sometimes called autism or classical ASD, is the most severe form. Other conditions along the spectrum include a milder form known as Asperger syndrome, Rett’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (usually referred to as PDD-NOS).
Although ASD varies greatly in character and severity, it occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Some doctors believe the increased incidence in autism is due to newer definitions of autism. The term “autism” now includes a wider spectrum of children. For example, a child who is diagnosed with high-functioning autism today may have been thought in the past to simply be odd.
The most notable feature of ASD is impaired social interaction which can be detected as early as infancy. A baby with ASD may not respond to people like other babies do or may focus intently on one object for long periods of time while ignoring everything else around it. Children with ASD may not respond to their names and may avoid eye contact with other people. They may seem to have difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling and fail to understand social cues, such as tone of voice or facial expressions. It may appear they lack empathy for others.
Many children with an ASD engage in repetitive movements such as rocking, twirling, biting or head-banging. They tend to start speaking later than other children and have difficulty using pronouns such as “I”, “me” and “you”. Children with an ASD avoid playing interactively with other children. They may speak in a sing-song voice about things they are obsessively interested in without regard for the listener’s interest.
Children with ASD may have other medical or genetic conditions in addition, including Fragile X syndrome (which causes mental retardation), tuberous sclerosis, Tourette’s syndrome, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder. Twenty to 30 percent of children with ASD develop epilepsy by the time they are adults.
There are many theories about what causes autism but the truth is scientists aren’t entirely sure of the exact causes. There does seem to b more than one factor at work and genetics does play a role. Researchers have identified over 100 genes associated with the disorder and siblings of an autistic child are more likely to develop the disorder. In families with one child with ASD, the risk of having a second child with the disorder is approximately 5 percent, or one in 20. This is greater than the risk for the general population. It may also be that something turns on and off these genes and there is likely an environmental component as well.
Imaging studies of people with ASD have found abnormalities in several regions of the brain. Another theory is that people with ASD have abnormal levels of serotonin or other neurotransmitters in the brain. The idea that poor parenting causes ASD has been clearly disproven.
A number of other possible causes have been suspected, but not proven. They include:
diet, digestive tract changes, mercury poisoning, inability to properly use vitamins and minerals and vaccine sensitivity.
Some parents worry that some vaccines are not safe and may harm their baby or young child. They may ask their doctor or nurse to wait, or even refuse to have the vaccine. However, it is important to also think about the risks of not having the vaccination.
Some people believe that the small amount of mercury (called thimerosal) that was a common preservative in multi dose vaccines caused autism or ADHD. However, studies have disproven this theory and all of the routine childhood vaccines are available in single-dose forms that do not contain added mercury. The American Academy of Pediatrics and The Institute of Medicine agree that no vaccine or component of any vaccine is responsible for the number of children who are currently being diagnosed with autism. Both groups have concluded that the benefits of vaccines outweigh any risk.
There are five disorders under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders and these include Autism, Aspergers Syndrome, Rhett’s Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and PDD-NOS (not otherwise specified).
Asperger syndrome is like autism, but with normal language development. Rhett’s syndrome is very different from autism and only occurs in females. Childhood disintegrative disorder is a rare condition where a child learns skills, then loses them by age 10. Pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) is also called atypical autism.