Autism spectrum disorder, commonly known as autism, is a range neurodevelopmental conditions that affects a person’s ability to interact, socialize and communicate with others. The affected person has difficulty reading other people’s emotions and expressing their own. It is also characterized by limited and repetitive patterns of certain behaviors. The term spectrum in autism spectrum disorder refers to the wide variety of symptoms displayed in affected individuals. There is no cure for autism, but early diagnosis and intervention can help in improving communication and overall quality of life.
The exact causes of autism spectrum disorder are yet to be determined. It is a complex disorder that presents with a multitude of symptoms that vary in severity. It is considered that multiple factors such as genetics, prenatal and perinatal factors, neuroanatomical abnormalities and environmental factors may play a role in the development of this disease. For some children, autism spectrum disorder can be linked with a genetic disorder, such as fragile X syndrome, Rett syndrome, Angelman syndrome etc. These genetic disorders may be inherited or result from a gene mutation during the early development of the fetus. Other factors such as infections, medications, and pollution are also being studied for their relation with autism spectrum disorder.
Autism spectrum disorder is much more predominant among boys than girls. Positive family history can also play a role. If you have one child with autism spectrum disorder, the risk of having another child with the same disorder is higher. Children with other genetic diseases such as fragile X syndrome, Rett syndrome and tuberous sclerosis are also at increased risk of developing autism spectrum disorder. It is also seen that parents or relatives of an autistic child can also have issues with social skills or verbal communication.
The incidence of autism has increased in the recent few years. However, it hasn’t been confirmed if it is due to a rise in the incidence or better detection of this disorder. According to CDC, approximately 1 in 44 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Boys are 4 times more likely to be affected than girls.
The signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorder may be noticed from early infancy but become apparent around 2 years when a child starts to communicate. The symptoms may vary in different children as each affected child presents with a unique set of signs and symptoms. Common symptoms of autism that can be noticed during childhood include lack of response to their name, prefers playing alone, or staying in their own world, has poor eye contact, does not smile often or lacks facial expressions, has difficulty in starting a conversation, speaking in an abnormal tone, following repetitive behaviors, doesn’t understand feelings and emotions of other people and difficulty in understanding social cues.
The intelligence of an autistic child may or may not be affected. Some have lower than average intelligence, while others have normal or high intelligence. Repetitive behavioral patterns include rocking, hand flapping, spinning etc. Your child may also engage in behaviors that could harm them such as biting themselves or banging their head against a wall. They can also have unusual sensitivity to light, sound and touch. Additional symptoms can be present depending on the severity of disorder. Unlike what many people believe, the symptoms of autism are not caused by childhood vaccination.
Autism spectrum disorder is diagnosed on the basis of several factors which include developmental patterns, behavioral patterns, presenting symptoms, screening tests, genetic tests and detailed evaluations. Your doctor will require a detailed history of your child’s habits and behaviors from an early age. Screening tests such as Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) is a common way to determine the risk of autism in children.
A combination of multiple tests is required for accurate diagnosis which may include DNA testing, behavioral evaluation, developmental questionnaires, visual and audio tests and speech evaluation. Often there is a team of specialists involved in reaching the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. These include child psychologists, speech and language pathologists and occupational therapists. You may also get autism diagnosis as an adult if you didn’t get diagnosed in childhood.
Autism spectrum disorder needs to be differentiated from other conditions that may present with similar symptoms. These include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), language disorders, social communication disorders, Rett syndrome, schizophrenia, selective mutism, intellectual disability and stereotypic movement disorder.
There is no cure for autism spectrum disorder yet. However, supportive therapies and other helpful techniques can aid in improving the quality of life to a certain degree. Supportive therapies include behavioral therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, play therapy, communication therapy and educational therapy. The best route of treatment is difficult to predict as the child may display varying symptoms as they grow. Modifications in treatment plans can help the child adapt to new settings, such as transitioning from home to school. Your child may need special education programs that are designed specifically to teach children with autism spectrum disorder. These programs can also help in improving their social and communication skills. The parents or caretakers of an autistic child will also need counseling and consistent guidance regarding to this disease.
There aren’t any medications that can treat autism, but certain medications may help with some symptoms. For example, antipsychotic drugs can be prescribed to control some behavioral issues. No medication should be given without the consent of a doctor.
The prognosis of children with autism spectrum disorder may vary. Autistic children with intellectual disabilities are likely to have a poor prognosis compared to those with normal intelligence. Early intervention can improve communication skills and behavioral patterns in most children.
There are no specific ways to prevent autism spectrum disorder. If you notice possible signs of autism in your child at an early age, consult with a specialist for a better diagnosis and guidance.
Our clinical experts continually monitor the health and medical content posted on CURA4U, and we update our blogs and articles when new information becomes available. Last reviewed by Dr.Saad Zia on May 12, 2023.