Autism is a developmental disorder that affects communication and social interactions, and is often marked by repetitive behavior. Symptoms appear during early childhood, typically by the age of 3. Since people with autism display a wide range of symptoms that run the gamut from mild to severe, doctors refer to the condition as autism spectrum disorder. Asperger’s syndrome is a milder version of the disease.
Signs & Symptoms
Autism most often involves three distinct areas of development: communication, social skills, and behavior. But because it is different for every person, symptoms and severity vary widely. Not every behavior will be evident. Common symptoms include:
- Speech is delayed or nonexistent
- Loss of previously acquired words and sentences
- Speech is different (abnormal rhythm and tone, robotic, incorrect pitch)
- Difficulty expressing wants and needs
- Problems following directions and/or answering questions
- Repeating words and phrases
- Inability to follow a conversation
- Failure to make eye contact
- Unhappy being held or touched
- Prefers to play alone rather than with others
- Problems making friends
- Inappropriate emotional responses (crying, becoming angry, laughing without reason)
- Lack of empathy toward others
- Performs repetitive movements (rocking, hand-flapping)
- Inability to deal with change in routine
- Unusual sensitivity to light, sound, and touch
- Lack of fear and obliviousness to pain
- Feeding difficulties (eating limited foods, avoiding certain textures)
- Overly attached to objects; may use them incorrectly or not understand how they work
While children develop at their own pace, those with autism usually display some signs of delayed development by the time they turn a year old. If you have any concerns about your child’s behavior, schedule an appointment with his or her pediatrician as soon as possible. The earlier treatment begins, the better the chances of success.
Causes & Treatment
The exact cause of autism is unknown. It may be related to genetics, environmental factors, or a combination of the two. There is great controversy over whether childhood vaccinations may be linked to autism; in particular, the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine often comes under fire. However, despite many studies taking place, there is no evidence whatsoever of a link between the two. Immunizations play a crucial role in keeping your child healthy and preventing the spread of serious disease.
If autism is suspected, your child’s doctor will likely make a referral to a specialist, such as a Speech-Language Pathologist, for an official diagnosis. While there is no cure for autism, there are a number of treatment options that may be helpful. These include behavioral, educational, and communication therapies; family therapy; and certain medications to help control symptoms.