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Approximately 1% of the child population in the United States, between the ages of 3-17 years old has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Experts estimate autism occurs in one of every one-hundred births and 1 to 1.5 million Americans.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

The health care costs associated with autism results in $60 billion spent annually and within ten years time the costs are expected to total up to $200-$400 billion.  Current statistics obtained from the U.S. Department of Education show autism is growing at a rate of 10-17% annually and could affect some 4 million people in the next ten years.

Autism is a complex and difficult to understand developmental disability that generally first appears in children within two years of life.  The condition affects the human brain and impacts the child’s social interactions, language skills and communication abilities.  Children and adults who have autism display difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication and are unable to interact with others as a result.   Autism Spectrum Disorder is the most common of all Pervasive Developmental Disorders and knows no racial, ethnic or social boundaries and can happen to any child in any family.

What Causes Autism?

There is no single known cause for a child having autism spectrum disorder.  Researchers are puzzled as to what specifically causes one child and not another to develop the debilitating disorder.  Below are listed certain factors that could possible lead to a child developing autism, which include but are not limited to the following:

  • Genetic errors:  researchers have isolated a number of genes which appear to be linked to autism.  Some genes can make a child at higher risk for developing autism.  Each error in the genetic chain puts a child at higher risk and genetic influence can be substantial.
  • Environmental factors:  some researchers are currently exploring whether environmental toxins, chemicals and viruses can be linked to autism in children.
  • Other causes:  other factors which are being studied include problems during labor and delivery and the function of the immune system in relation to autism.  Some experts think that amygdala damage (portion of the brain which detects danger) can play a role in autism.

To date there have been several sources which claim childhood vaccines can increase the risk of childhood autism.  To date, there have been extensive studies conducted which have found no conclusive link to prove the claim is true.

Signs of Autism

Because every child is different, autism can be difficult to pinpoint and diagnose.  Many children show distinctive signs of autism beginning in early infancy, while other children show signs later in life after appearing to develop at a normal pace.  Though each child is sure to display their own unique behavioral patterns, there are certain characteristics which can be a hallmark of autism:

Social Skills

  • Child prefers to play alone and appears to retreat into his or her own world, ignoring others and being solitary.
  • Child does not respond to her or his name.
  • Child makes poor eye contact.
  • Child is resistant to cuddling or being held.
  • Child appears unaware or ignores the feelings of others.

Language

  • Child may repeat certain words or phrases, almost chanting.
  • Child experiences delay in speaking in contrast to others the same age.
  • Child loses previously acquired ability to speak words or sentences.
  • Child avoids eye contact when speaking or making requests.
  • Child speaks in a monotone or abnormal tone, speech is singsong or robotic.
  • Child cannot initiate a conversation or cannot maintain a conversation.

Behavioral Patterns

  • Child can appear sensitive to light, noise and touch and yet impervious to pain.
  • Child develops routines or rituals.
  • Child becomes disturbed at the slightest deviation from routines or rituals.
  • Child is constantly moving in some way or another.
  • Child may be enthralled by parts of an object, such as spinning wheels on a toy car.

How is Autism Diagnosed?

A child’s pediatrician will look for signs of developmental delays throughout regular visits.  If a child shows some signs that highlight a suspected case of autism, a referral to a specialist could be in order.  An autism specialist will work in conjunction with a team of other medical professionals and specialists who will perform a series of tests used to diagnose autism.  

Because each child is unique, diagnosing autism can be quite difficult and complex.  There are no specific medical tests to pinpoint the disorder, only after a formal evaluation and observing the child and speaking to the parent about social and language skills and behavior patterns can a physician begin to make a credible diagnosis.

Although the signs of autism generally first appear in children around 18 months of age, a formal diagnosis is ultimately delayed until the child reaches 2-3 years of age.  Early diagnosis and intervention allows for the child to receive the best treatment possible and allows for the most significant outcome.

Treatment for Autism

There is no cure-all for autism and in fact there is a broad range of home-based and school-based treatment methods for the disorder.  An autism specialist will be able to recommend the best and most aggressive treatment and identify what will most benefit the child in question.  Some of the most common treatment options include the following: 

  1. Behavioral and communication therapy:  there have been many programs developed for treating the wide range of speech, social and language difficulties experienced by children with autism.  Some of the programs put a focus on reducing behavioral problems and teaching new skills.  Other treatment programs utilize on teaching the child how to act in different social situations and how to communicate effectively with others.
  2. Educational therapy:  children who have autism frequently respond very well to a highly structured educational therapy program.  The goals of the programs are to improve social and communication skills, and instill positive behavior patterns.
  3. Drug therapies:  there is no medication which will improve the signs of autism, but there are certain drugs which have shown promise in controlling the condition.  The child may be prescribed antidepressants for anxiety or antipsychotic medications for treating severe behavioral problems.
  4. Creative therapies:  supplemental and medical intervention coupled with art or music therapies focus on reducing the child’s sensitivity to noise, sounds and touch.
  5. Special diets:  there have been several dietary recommendations made in relation to treating autism.  Some proponents believe in restricting food allergens, probiotics, a yeast-free diet plan, a casein-free diet plan or a gluten-free diet.  To learn more about enacting a special diet in a child with autism it is necessary for a parent to first speak with a nutritionist and autism expert to see which plan would work best.
  6. Chelation therapy:  the treatment which is recommended by some physicians and parents is done to remove mercury from the body. To date there has been no studies done which have proven the therapy to be of benefit to children with autism and the treatment has not been proven to be safe.

Overview

Raising a child with autism can be an extremely challenging and exhausting situation.  However, there are things parents can do to learn effective and positive ways to cope with the stresses and challenges which will make life more manageable.  Finding a team of trusted professionals, learning everything there is to know about the disorder, seeking out other families with autistic children and taking time out for oneself and other family members is the key to adjusting to life with a child suffering from a condition of this nature.

  • www.autism-society.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_whatis_factsstats
  • kidshealth.org/kid/health_problems/brain/autism.html
  • www.mayoclinic.com/health/autism/DS00348/DSECTION=symptoms
  • www.mayoclinic.com/health/autism/DS00348/DSECTION=causes
  • www.autism-resources.com/autismfaq-trea.html