Most parents have heard of autism, known today as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
ASD affects approximately 1 in 50 children in the United States today, making it an important disorder for parents, teachers, and caregivers to be aware of. Early diagnosis and treatment through various therapies can help improve the quality of life of a child with ASD by alleviating some of their symptoms or behavioral challenges.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
According to the Autism National Committee, ASD is characterized by “qualitative differences in the development of cognitive, language, social, or motor skills” that are usually “apparent before age 3.” Symptoms can be major, moderate, or mild, which is what has led to the classification of autism as a spectrum disorder.
Causes of Autism Spectrum Disorder
While the cause of ASD has been largely speculated on for decades, modern medical evidence and research suggests that ASD is caused by irregularities in the development of the brain and central nervous system. Causes of these irregularities may include:
- Genetic disorders
- Chemical exposure
- Viral infections
- Environmental toxins
Research remains ongoing to identify the potential causes of a child developing ASD.
Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder
ASD can present in many different ways and in varying degrees of severity, including:
- Cognitive delays
- Behavioral issues
- Difficulties with social interactions
- Delays with verbal/nonverbal communication
- Repetitive behaviors
- Learning difficulties
- Sensory seeking behaviors
- Trouble with motor coordination
Children with ASD may also display the following comorbidities:
- Mood disorders or anxiety
- Unusual eating and sleeping habits
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Epilepsy or seizure disorders
Parents of young children who have a concern should watch for the following:
- Lack of eye contact
- Not responding to name by 9 months
- Not showing facial expressions by 9 months (e.g., happy, sad, angry)
- Not playing interactive games by 12 months (e.g., peekaboo)
- Not using gestures by 12 months (e.g., waving goodbye)
- Not sharing interests by 15 months (e.g., showing you something they like)
- Not pointing to objects or people by 18 months
- Not noticing other’s emotions by 24 months
- Not noticing other children or showing interest in playing with them by 36 months
- Not incorporating pretend play into playtime by 48 months
- Not singing, dancing, or acting by 60 months
- Lining up toys or other objects in order
- Echolalia (repetition of words or phrases)
- Obsessive interests or patterns of play
- Fixation on parts of objects (such as the wheels of toy cars)
- Inability to adapt to minor changes in environment or routine
- Unusual reactions to sensory stimulation (such as smells, sounds, or tastes)
- Seeking sensory input (such as flapping the hands or rocking their body)
Please note: The above list of signs has been developed by the CDC to assist parents in seeking a diagnosis. Your child’s doctor or other medical professional may ask you about the presence of these symptoms or evaluate your child with a similar list. If you suspect ASD in your child, keep an eye out for these important signs and milestones above.
Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder
ASD is a lifelong condition. However, parents and caregivers can take action to support their children in having a better quality of life and the management of many symptoms.
These treatments may include:
- Therapies – Depending on their unique symptoms, various therapies may be offered to your child, including behavioral, speech therapy, and physical therapy.
- Special education programs – As a parent of a child with ASD, you will work closely with your child’s school or district to develop an educational plan. These programs often include a special focus on life skills, social skills, speech development, self-care, and job skills. Your child may be placed in a specialized class or may be allowed to remain in a “mainstream” classroom with additional support.
- Medication – In conjunction with behavioral therapies, medicines may be given to help address specific symptoms or areas of concern in your child, such as GI issues or lack of sleep.
Keep in mind that many individuals with ASD are able to live independent or semi-independent lives as they gain skills and support during childhood.
If you think your child is displaying symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, or you have any other concerns about their development, give us a call today to schedule an evaluation with one of our knowledgeable, board-certified pediatricians. Early diagnosis and intervention can help improve your child’s behavior, development, and quality of life.