Autismby Katlyn Joy | June 15, 2010 12:00 AM
Autism is a developmental brain disorder that affects one in 110 US children, and among boys the numbers are higher, closer to one in 70. Autism is part of a range of disorders called Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD, and can cause mild to severe symptoms.
Symptoms of Autism
Autism is associated with symptoms such as communication difficulties, social problems, and repetitive behaviors. As many as one-third of parents reported knowing something was wrong by their child's first birthday, and by the second birthday 80 percent knew there was a problem with their child's behavior or development, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, a formal diagnosis occurs on average around a child's fifth birthday.
The main characteristic that concerns parents and is an autism red flag is delayed speech development. About 40 percent of those with autism disorder don't speak at all, and 25 to 30 percent have a few words in their vocabulary at 18 months but lose them later. Still others develop some vocabulary, but significantly late in childhood.
While speech is a main symptom of autism, the main characteristic of autism is impaired social function. Even in infancy this can be detected. Often these babies will not make eye contact, and be unresponsive to social cues. Most babies are more fascinated by people's faces than toys, but an infant with autism will focus on things rather people often times.
Children with autism may not respond to their names, will avoid eye contact and appear to lack empathy or understanding of others' emotions or moods. They may develop repetitive behaviors such as head-banging, biting, flapping, twirling or rocking. Those who do develop some language skills may be restricted in conversation to a few topics and unable to converse in normal fashion.
Diagnosis of autism can be made by a professional, whether a physician, psychologist or other child development professional. Typically the child will be observed by the expert, and information will be gleaned from conversations with the parents about the child's development. A screening test will be performed such as the Ages and Stages Questionnaire or ASQ, Parents' Evaluation of Developmental Status or PEDS, Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers or M-CHAT, or Screening Tool for Autism in Toddlers and Young Children or STAT.
Once a family has a diagnosis of autism, it's important to develop a plan for intervention. The earlier a child receives special services the better the outlook. In early intervention programs children up to 3 years of age can receive a variety of special education services. Toddlers and young children will often receive speech therapy, sensory integration therapy occupational therapy.
Other types of treatment include The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) where children are taught to communicate using picture symbols. Applied Behavior Analysis is another treatment approach which encompasses encouraging positive behaviors while discouraging negative ones and keeping careful track of a child's progress. ABA includes a wide variety of techniques all aimed at those basic goals and has a wide following in health care circles, schools and clinics.
Some parents have tried nutritional therapies with some success however not as much research is available at this time to provide conclusive proof of their effectiveness. Many parents try complementary or alternative therapies as well, but research is lacking in this area as well and many therapies are highly controversial.
Medications may be prescribed for anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anti psychotics can help with behavioral problems, and anticonvulsants with seizures. Those with ADHD can take medication to help with impulsivity, attention problems and hyperactivity.
Understanding why autism occurs is still mainly a mystery, but it's believed to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Parents with an autistic child have a 2 to 8 percent chance of having another child with autism. Twins studies have shown that if one identical twin has autism there is a 60 to 96 percent chance of the other one have autism as well.
About 10 percent of those with autism have a genetic disorder such as Fragile X or Down syndrome. About 41 percent of those with autism have an intellectual disability defined as an IQ at or below 70.
Families with an autistic child need to work with a team to meet their child's and the family's medical, psychological and educational needs. Support from the team members and support groups for autistic families is vital. Research is revealing new information and yielding more hope everyday for those living with autism.Katlyn Joy is a freelance writer, and just graduated with a Master's of Arts in Creative Writing. She is mom to seven children, and lives in Denver, Colorado.
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