Autism Spectrum DisorderheadingContent
Autism Spectrum Disorder / Asperger syndrome
These words have elicited much fear in our parents today. Not only because these diagnoses have become so prevalent in our society, but also because of the implications of these diagnoses and the life-changing family dynamics that ensue. It is currently estimated that 1 in 68 children in the United States has autism spectrum disorder, the new term that encompasses all autism disorders.
What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as currently defined by the National Institute of Health (NIH), is a group of complex neurodevelopmental disorders which are characterized by verbal and nonverbal social communication difficulties, social interaction difficulties and repetitive behaviors with characteristic patterns.
So, what does this mean?
A child may have normal intelligence or range from having mild-to-severe developmental disabilities. The child may have normal language skills, be delayed with speech, have difficulty following commands or even be completely nonverbal. The child may act out in public and get very agitated in crowds or in unfamiliar places. The child may have unusual behaviors which can be repetitive, such as the classically known hand flapping, rocking from side-to-side or banging of the head. The child also becomes preoccupied with certain objects or obsesses over certain topics, which can last for hours to days. Any small change in routine can be very disruptive and can cause outbursts, aggression or refusal to continue.
How Is ASD Diagnosed?
Depending on the severity of the disorder, symptoms can range widely from mild-to-severely debilitating. Your child’s pediatrician follows the development of your baby at every well-check, using any number of screening tools. In addition, there is also a screening tool called M-CHAT (modified checklist for autism in toddlers) that is used at the 18 month, two year, and two and a half year visits, which more specifically looks for signs of autism. If these questionnaires reveal any abnormal results your child is then referred to a neurodevelopmental team for further evaluation by these specialists. This team may be comprised of a psychologist, neurologist, psychiatrist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, physical therapist and neurodevelopmental specialist. Depending on the results, therapy begins as soon as possible. Early intervention is believed to improve outcomes in these children.
What Causes Autism?
Due to ongoing research, we now know that there is not one specific cause of autism. Genetic research has shown that there are specific defects on certain chromosomes that can be inherited and are attributed to autism, so it can be seen running in families. There can also be spontaneous mutation of a gene, which can lead to autism. Environmental factors can play a role in the developing brains of fetuses, which can trigger autism. Children born to older parents have a higher rate of autism. And new research has also revealed that pregnant mothers with preeclampsia, which is considered a dangerous pregnancy complication due to high blood pressure, may also be a risk factor for developing autism and neurodevelopmental compromise. Much research is being done, and more is still to come. However, we do know from many research studies with tens of thousands of children studied, that vaccines are not the cause of autism.
How Is Autism Treated?
There is not a specific treatment for autism. Therapy is individualized for each child to address his or her specific needs. Therapies may include behavioral, speech, occupational, physical and/or neurodevelopmental treatments. Medications, if indicated, may also be incorporated into the treatment plan. The general consensus is that the earlier the treatment interventions begin, the better the outcome for the child.
There are many websites that parents can access online for additional information on ASD and it’s best to discuss with your pediatrician which websites are appropriate for you. Also, we are fortunate to have in South Florida, several autism centers dedicated solely for diagnosing and treating children with autism spectrum disorder.