Understanding Autism: Signs, Characteristics and Coping
According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 2.41% of children in the United States have autism spectrum disorder. The term autism refers to a type of developmental disorder that strongly impacts an individual’s social and communication skills. Autism is not a single disorder but rather is the abbreviated term for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Under the ASD umbrella lie various types of developmental disorders, including Asperger syndrome, that affect individuals to varying degrees. According to the American Psychiatric Association these include:
- Autistic disorder
- Childhood disintegrative disorder
- Pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)
- Asperger's syndrome
Basically, autism doesn’t look the same on any two individuals but rather manifests differently in each person. There are, however, common autism characteristics, such as difficulties with communication and social interaction.
While various factors can cause a child to experience developmental delays, such as speech delays, ASD should never be ruled out as a potential cause. We’re here to share the signs and characteristics of autism so you can stay informed as you monitor your child’s development, as early intervention is key to improving daily life for both those with autism and their caregivers. We’ll also share some common methods of coping with an ASD diagnosis.
What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism is a developmental disorder that specifically affects an individual’s verbal and social skills development. What is important to understand about autism is that it is a spectrum. This means that one may fall on the high or the low end of the spectrum. Those on the low end have more severe developmental disabilities, behavioral challenges, and social communication symptoms, while those on the high end are thought to have less severe symptoms, or what is referred to as high-functioning autism.
Autism affects both children and adults. Autism does not develop later in life but sometimes goes misdiagnosed or undiagnosed in young children, particularly if the children are high functioning. Misdiagnosing and underdiagnosing leads to adults with ASD who don’t know that they have ASD and who likely never received any treatment.
What Causes Autism Spectrum Disorder?
ASD is believed to be caused by abnormalities in brain structure and brain function. What causes these abnormalities has not yet been determined. Health care providers do believe, though, that genetics play a role in ASD. A diagnosis of autism has been linked to genetic disorders such as Rett syndrome and fragile X syndrome. Certain genetic mutations may increase the risk of autism, while other genes can influence brain development and affect patterns of behavior or severity of symptoms.
Patterns of ASD in families have been observed, although a specific gene or identifying genetic marker has not yet been found. Researchers continue to study genetic factors as well as environmental factors, such as viruses or air pollutants, which may contribute to the development of ASD.
Autism and Vaccines
For several years, there has been a concern among parents about whether common infant and childhood vaccines may lead to autism. After extensive research, various reputable health organizations have concluded and asserted that vaccines are not a risk factor for autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Mayo Clinic, and Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital have each stated that there is no link between vaccines and autism and that the studies which suggested there may be a link have not been able to provide any reliable research to back up their claims.
One of the earliest studies, published in 1998, suggesting a connection between a vaccine and autism has since been proven false, leading to the loss of the medical license of the physician who wrote it, as well as the article being pulled from publication. To date, no research has been able to provide a viable link between vaccines and autism.
Signs of Autism
According to the Autism Speaks website, signs of autism may appear as early as 18 months old, though the most apparent autism characteristics typically don’t emerge until around age 2 or 3. Autism causes developmental delays, so as a child ages it becomes evident if he or she is not hitting certain milestones. It’s important to note that not everyone with ASD will exhibit the same symptoms, and those who do share symptoms may experience them to varying degrees. Autism Speaks lists the following common signs of autism to help parents evaluate their child’s development.
- No social facial expressions, such as smiles, directed at people
- Limited or no eye contact
- No vocal sounds or nonverbal communication such as smiling
- No babbling
- Does not use gestures that babies typically use to communicate, like pointing, reaching, waving
- Does not respond when name is called
- No words
At any age (including in teens and adults):
- Avoids eye contact
- Prefers to be alone
- Lacks the ability to understand other people's feelings
- Is nonverbal or has delayed language development
- Repetitive speech, especially words or phrases over and over
- Repetitive behaviors, like flapping, rocking, or spinning
- Unusual movement or body language
- Relies on routine and gets upset over minor changes
- Very restricted interests
- Unusual and intense reactions to senses including:
Coping with Autism
Learning that a family member has autism is taxing on the entire family, especially parents and siblings. The earlier a child receives a diagnosis of ASD and begins treatment, the better the outcome may be for the child. There is no cure for ASD and no one treatment is effective for every ASD patient. However, when ASD is diagnosed early, intervention may help a child with ASD develop essential social, communication, and behavioral skills. If your child has been diagnosed with ASD, the best approach to take in helping your child is to talk with your physician about creating a treatment plan. Keep in mind that treatment will change over time as your child ages.
Autism Treatments and Therapies
Common ASD treatments include:
- Family therapies
- Behavioral and communication therapies
- Educational therapies
- Individualized therapies depending upon needs such as:
- Speech therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Physical therapy
- Medications to control some symptoms such as hyperactivity
- Treatments for accompanying health issues such as:
- Sleep disorders
- Gastrointestinal (GI) problems
- Mental health disorders
A 2012 study published in the journal Science revealed that a rare form of autism that is complicated by epilepsy might be treatable using an amino acid supplement. Amino acids help the body form protein, tissue, muscles, and chemicals needed for proper functioning, including proper brain function. Autism Speaks reported on the study, in which an amino acid supplement successfully reduced symptoms of autism and seizures in mice. While further research is needed to determine the potential effects of the amino acid supplement on humans, this is a step forward in finding new ways to treat autism disorders.