Autism, otherwise known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), isn’t just a reference to one single condition. ASD includes conditions such as Asperger syndrome, autism disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder. This change was made in 2013 when medical professionals altered the criteria for an autism diagnosis to better distinguish symptoms and to include other conditions under the ASD umbrella.
ASD is characterized as a developmental disorder that impacts an individual’s social and communication skills. Other characterizations include repetitive behaviors, the ability to self-regulate, potential challenges in building relationships and even challenges with self-help. Signs for this condition often appear early in life, typically around ages 2 to 3 years old. However, signs can go unnoticed for years and a diagnosis might not be made until later in life.
Recent data tells us that 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with ASD and while this condition can affect people from any social and economic group, minorities often experience problems in receiving a diagnosis as early or as often. Boys also have a higher rate of diagnosis, being 4 times more likely to be affected. Research shows that catching the signs early and being diagnosed can significantly benefit the quality of life for the individual.
What Causes Autism?
Much speculation exists about the cause of autism but there are things we know for certain. In the vast majority of cases, individuals are born with autism as a result of their genetics. Children who have siblings with autism do have a higher risk of having autism as well, particularly if the children are twins. Having children at an older age increases the chances of your offspring having ASD as well.
Besides genetics, there are a few other factors that we are aware of that can increase the chances of ASD in children. Certain prescriptions drugs taken during pregnancy, for example, have been linked to a higher chance of ASD. These drugs include valproic acid and thalidomide. Having other chromosomal or genetic conditions also can increase the chances of an ASD diagnosis, such as fragile X syndrome. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that there is some evidence to suggest that a critical period exists for ASD development in the time before, during and immediately after giving birth.
There are still things we don’t know about what causes ASD or what other specific factors can influence its development. Over the last couple of decades, many theories have circulated around the internet about the potential causes of ASD. One thing we do know for certain, thanks to research, is that childhood vaccines do not cause ASD.
Signs of Autism
Most people are diagnosed with autism very early in life and boys tend to be diagnosed sooner than girls since symptoms of ASD can be missed by parents and caregivers. Since boys experience ASD at a higher rate, symptoms are not looked for or noticed as often as in girls and what may be regarded as a quiet or shy disposition can often be signs of autism instead.
Since spotting the signs and symptoms of ASD early is a key part of quality treatment for this condition, understanding the signs can help you catch it earlier rather than later. There are many symptoms of ASD and not all may apply to an individual, but here is how ASD may manifest in a person:
- Difficulty making friends and maintaining relationships
- Difficulty understanding social cues
- Interest in people but difficulty communicating
- Different reactions to certain sounds, tastes, smells or feelings. This can look like a hypersensitivity to sound, for example
- Repeated actions and routines
- Difficulty understanding their own and other’s feelings
- Trouble displaying their emotions and communicating their needs
- Having adverse reactions to touch or physical affection
- Special and obsessive interests
- Avoiding eye contact and a desire to be alone
- Stimming, or repetitive body motions, to help self-regulate their emotions
Some individuals may experience all of these symptoms while others may not. Since autism exists on a spectrum, the severity of the condition will greatly vary from person to person. For example, 31 percent of people experience an intellectual disability as a result of ASD while 44 percent of people with ASD have an average or above average IQ score.
ASD is often accompanied by other conditions as well, such as gastrointestinal issues such as GERD or acid reflux. People who have ASD may also experience things such as seizures and sleeping problems. Mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, may exist alongside ASD as well.
The American Psychological Association (APA) uses the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM) in order to diagnose varying conditions and for ASD, the core symptoms of autism must be present in some measure in early childhood. These symptoms do not have to be fully developed during this period of life, and a diagnosis may not be made until later in life but in order to qualify as ASD, the symptoms must’ve existed to some degree very early in life.
Since there is no medical test, such as a blood test or an MRI scan, that exists that can detect autism, it can be hard to properly diagnose. In order to receive a diagnosis, medical professionals will look at the symptoms the patient is experiencing as well as their childhood history and behavior to determine if the patient has ASD.
The earliest signs that doctors look for in order to make a diagnosis include:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Easily upset by changes
- Little communication skills in comparison to peers
Once these symptoms are identified, a doctor may go ahead and assign an ASD diagnosis. Some children are able to be diagnosed as early as 18 months but others may not be diagnosed until 2 years old. Sometimes it may be recommended to monitor a child’s development first to see if symptoms continue to present themselves before making a diagnosis. This can be done through either developmental screening or monitoring. However, this means that some children may not be diagnosed until later in life and some people aren’t diagnosed until they reach adulthood due to their ASD being misdiagnosed as a mental illness, such as anxiety or depression.
This isn’t surprising, considering that mental illness can often exist simultaneously with ASD. Anxiety affects 11 to 40 percent of children and young adults with ASD. Depression affects 7 percent of children and 26 percent of adults with ASD. If autism is not diagnosed early in life, getting help during the early stages of development will be difficult.
Autism in Boys vs. Girls
Some research suggests that a child’s gender also plays a part in getting diagnosed. While boys are way more likely to have ASD, girls with ASD often go unnoticed. This is because there is a possibility that certain symptoms appear more in boys than they do in girls.
Boys more often present the telltale signs of ASD, such as repetitive behaviors or poor impulse control.
Societal expectations also play a role in the gender divide here. Girls are often expected to be quieter and more reserved, so noticing troubles with their communication skills will be more difficult. Girls with autism are also more likely to make friends than their counterparts, which makes identifying problems with socialization hard. Part of the reason girls can be so hard to diagnose early in life is that they are better at masking, or hiding, their symptoms. Even if they struggle to communicate or make friends, this is often not seen because young girls sometimes feel the need to mask themselves.
Due to feeling like they need to act “normal,” some girls don’t receive a diagnosis until late adolescence or even adulthood. Understanding how girls may present their symptoms as opposed to boys can help parents and caregivers to spot the signs earlier — that way they can get the treatment they need.
There is no cure for ASD but there are plenty of treatment options available. Treatment plans will vary based on the type of help a child needs since some children struggle more in certain areas than others. Children will also react differently to certain treatments and may need a specific approach or combination of techniques in order to receive the best care possible.
Getting treatment can help those with ASD improve their motor skills, their cognitive ability, daily living skills and can help reduce overall symptoms. No matter what your child needs help with, there is a form of treatment that can help. The important thing is getting treatment as early as possible, as very little is known about how to treat teenagers and older adults who received a late diagnosis.
Behavior and Communication Treatments
Behavior and treatment approaches have helped provide vital structure to children with ASD. There are multiple approaches to choose from, so you can find the right fit for your child.
Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA).
ABA is an incredibly popular method for treating children with ASD and is used by medical professionals and even in schools. This treatment reinforces positive behavior and discourages negative behavior. Data is collected on the child’s behavior and analyzed for improvement. Multiple forms of ABA exist as well and here are just a few:
- Discrete Trial Training (DTT) sets up a series of trials that the child must follow. These trials give the child step-by-step instructions for a desired behavior or response in a given situation. DTT is made as simple as possible and positive reinforcement is used as the primary motivator. In this situation, negative behaviors are ignored rather than directly discouraged.
- Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI) works best with very young children, at least younger than 5 years old. EIBI is highly structured, which is great for autistic children who desire a very organized routine. This method takes place one-on-one, usually with a professional or experienced individual, and positive behavior is rewarded in hopes to reduce negative behavior.
- Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) is used with children between 1 to 2 years old. This treatment focuses on play as a way to build social, language and cognitive skills which they may otherwise be lacking. This method is practiced in tandem with parents and therapists for the best outcome.
- Pivotal Response Training (PRT) focuses on increasing a few different skills: the motivation to learn, the ability to monitor and control their own behavior, and the ability to start communication with other people. When done correctly and if the child responds positively to this method, it is thought that PRT can greatly benefit a child’s behavioral development.
- Verbal Behavior Intervention (VBI) is a method that focuses on and highly encourages teaching verbal skills.
There are many other forms of ABA as well and one may work better for one child than another. Different forms of ABA can also be combined for the best outcome. The other behavior and communication treatments include:
- Occupational therapy
- Assistive technology
- Social skills training
- Speech therapy
These treatments can be done at the same time as ABA therapy as part of a well-rounded treatment plan, helping your child develop multiple skills at once.
No medications exist that can cure ASD or treat the main symptoms, but there are medications that can help children improve their overall function. Children with ASD can use medications to help them focus, treat depression or anxiety, or reduce or eliminate seizures.
However, it is important to never start medication until you’ve consulted your doctor. Different prescription drugs will affect people differently and in many cases, finding the right medication may take a bit of trial and error before finding one that works. Always monitor a child when they are taking medication to see if symptoms are improving and how it may be affecting them.
Aside from prescription drugs, other types of complementary or alternative medicines exist for the treatment of ASD. Some parents turn to special diets, supplements or chelation (removal of heavy metals) as a way to relieve symptoms.
Very little evidence exists regarding the effectiveness of these treatments. In fact, some studies have even found some of these treatments, such as chelation, to be doing more harm than good. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is even warning parents against using treatments like chelation since significant health risks exist. Nearly 10 percent of parents are using a dangerous alternative treatment method.
Before moving forward with any treatment, always be sure to check with your doctor to be sure that what you are doing is safe.
Find a Peace of Mind With Early Autism Services
Being diagnosed with autism at any age can be overwhelming, but the good news is that the condition is manageable and it is completely possible to live a normal life with ASD. There are many options for you so you can tackle this head-on. Early Autism Services works diligently to provide quality therapy to children with autism. We personalize our care to each child and their unique skills so they can get the most out of our program. Whether you’re looking for in-home therapy, center-based therapy or remote therapy, we can help you! Contact us today and request a free consultation!