Autism

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Autism

What is autism?

Impacting the nervous system, autism spectrum disorder (or simply autism) encompasses a wide range of conditions. Common symptoms of autism include challenges in social situations, communication, and repetitive behaviors. There are many subtypes of autism, meaning that no two individuals present in exactly the same manner. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), around 1 in 54 American children is impacted by autism.

Is autism on the rise?

Over the past 40 years, autism diagnoses have increased to over 20 times what they were in 1980. It’s difficult to ascertain whether this is due to an actual rise in cases, environmental factors, or a broader definition of diagnosis. The lessened stigma of autism and increased diagnosis rates may also account for the rise in autism levels nationwide. Today, medical professionals are more open to diagnosing milder versions of autism, and increased awareness in the media can lead to earlier identification.

Causes

What are the causes of autism?

Autism is primarily caused by genetics. While environmental factors do play some role in the formation of autistic tendencies, researchers have determined that genetics are the main influencing factor. Some of the risk factors of autism include:

  • Having a sibling or especially a twin with autism.
  • Having a family history of relatives with autism or autistic traits (shyness, detail-orientedness, etc.)
  • Being born to older parents.
  • Being a male. Boys are four times more likely to receive autism diagnoses than girls. However, recent research has shown autism spectrum disorder may simply present differently in girls, and therefore may be underreported.
  • Genetic mutations or other genetic disorders.
  • Low weight at birth.
  • Exposure to harmful toxins.

There is a mixture of environmental and genetic factors that impact an individual’s predisposition toward autism. One common misconception is that autism can be caused by certain vaccinations. However, several studies, both old and new, have disproved this theory. 

Can autism be prevented?

There is no way to prevent autism, but early diagnosis and treatment can have a great impact on the individual. However, it's never too late to pursue treatment for autism—those who seek treatment experience improvements in their communication skills and behavior.

Can autism develop later in life?

In order to meet the diagnostic criteria for autism, a person must exhibit symptoms before three years of age. However, in some people, symptoms are not obvious until they encounter external stressors that stretch them to their limits. Those with high-functioning autism may be diagnosed later in life simply because early signs were overlooked by parents and caregivers. These cases are sometimes misdiagnosed as conditions like ADHD or perhaps not diagnosed at all.

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Symptoms

What are the symptoms of autism?

Problems with communication and social interactions are a hallmark of autism. Some of the most common symptoms of autism spectrum disorder include:

  • Aversion to physical touch.
  • Difficulty with eye contact.
  • Difficulty explaining and understanding emotions.
  • An unusual attachment to certain objects.
  • Strange behaviors or interests.
  • An affinity for organization.
  • Limited use of language.
  • Dislike of changing routines.
  • Repeating words, sounds, and phrases.
  • Issues with fine motor skills.

How does autism present in females?

Girls display different autistic traits than boys. Females with autism are more likely to interact with the world passively, which can be mistaken for a shy personality. As they age and encounter more social situations, they may have difficulty establishing interpersonal relations, leading them to seek treatment later in life. Therefore, many girls with autism are not properly diagnosed from an early age.

What are the types of autism?

Autism has several different subsections. The section under which an individual is classified may help in determining a treatment course. The main subsections of autism are:

  • Autistic disorder: This is the “classic” autism that most people picture. People with this disorder experience communication and socialization issues, language delays, and unusual interests.
  • Asperger’s syndrome: Asperger’s is one of the milder forms on the autism spectrum. Those with Asperger’s tend not to experience as many problems with language or intellectual disabilities. Their condition is more centered around unusual interests and social challenges.
  • Pervasive developmental disorder: For those that fit some criteria from the first two categories but not enough to be classified as having autistic disorder or Asperger’s, the pervasive developmental disorder diagnosis may be appropriate.

Although these are the three main types of autism, it’s important to remember each child will display symptoms differently. Each person’s autism also varies in severity, so you’ll want to speak with a medical professional to verify your or your child’s diagnosis.

Can autism get worse with age?

If left untreated, autism symptoms can increase with age. When a person doesn’t understand their condition, they are more likely to experience worsening symptoms over time. Those who do receive treatment, however, generally notice an improvement in their symptoms over time. With the proper tools and support, people learn to manage their symptoms and lead normal lives.

Diagnosis

How is autism diagnosed?

Because there is no medical test to determine whether or not an individual has autism, doctors will look at a child’s developmental history. Sometimes, autism can be diagnosed at 18 months of age or younger. By age 2, a diagnosis from a skilled medical practitioner is fairly reliable.

In order to help determine if your child has autism, you can practice developmental monitoring. This entails using a checklist to ensure your child is meeting the appropriate milestones expected of their age. When you bring them in for checkups, your doctor may want to perform a screening as well. Your child may receive a test, or you may be asked to fill in a questionnaire to ensure they are on track developmentally.

What happens when autism goes undiagnosed?

Without proper support and a solid understanding of their condition, children may develop increasingly problematic behaviors and social skills. These challenges can interfere with their day-to-day life, so diagnosis and treatment are essential.

Treatment

What treatment is there for autism?

There are several types of treatment available for autism. What’s best for your child depends on their individual needs. Consult with a trained medical professional to plan a treatment course, which may entail:

  • Behavioral therapy: Many kinds of behavioral therapy may benefit an individual with ASD. Two of the main types are applied behavior analysis and assistive technology. Applied behavior analysis tracks your child’s progress as you aim to increase positive behaviors and decrease negative behaviors. This type of therapy is best to begin when your child is under four years of age. Assistive technology, on the other hand, can be useful for all ages. Devices like tablets can help those with autism better communicate with those around them. However, there are a wide array of behavioral therapy options available, such as occupational therapy, speech therapy, and social skills training.
  • Medication: Unfortunately, there are no medications designed to mitigate the core symptoms of autism. There are, however, medications to help manage the worst of your child’s symptoms. For example, medications can be used to mitigate a person’s anxiety or depression, control tendencies to self-injure and manage high energy levels.

Can autism go away?

Research has shown that individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder may lose symptoms as they age. This is largely due to proper therapy and treatment, as well as a better understanding of the disorder. While those with autism may experience a waning in symptoms due to proper management of the condition, that does not mean the condition is entirely gone. However, when properly diagnosed and treated, symptoms can be reduced, and you may be able to navigate life with ease.

Information

Medically reviewed by:

Dr Roy Kedem, MD

Dr Zenon Andreou studied medicine at University College London, graduating in 2006. His postgraduate training was in hospitals in and around London and he trained for four years in Otolaryngology before completing his training in General practice

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