For years, autism was regarded as something to be “ashamed” of, with it being associated with a lot of stigma and stereotypes.
However, over the years, as our understanding of this mental health disorder has evolved, autism is now regarded along a spectrum, and otherwise known as an autism spectrum disorder.
What Exactly Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, refers to a range of neurological developmental disorders, often first observed in young kids.
Symptoms can range tremendously, and hence are regarded along a spectrum, starting from mild social inhibitions, to repetitive patterns and “tics”.
ASD does not discriminate. It affects all races, regardless of economic background or nationality.
There is, however, a growing disparity in the number of boys diagnosed when compared to girls.
A ratio as high as 4.3:1 boy to girl diagnostic rate is prevalent in parts of the United States, although it is unclear if this high number is just due to more parents testing boys than girls.
Symptoms Of ASD
According to the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a guidebook that is used as a guide for assessment and diagnosis of mental disorders, the majority of cases are detected between the ages of 1 and 2, although extremes exist out of this range as well.
Based on this manual, symptoms are broadly classified into two groups:
1) Social Interaction And Communication Symptoms
The majority of diagnosed cases of ASD are found owing to problems relating to social and communication skills fostered during early childhood.
Parents notice that certain developmental milestones are not being met and may seek out the help of their pediatrician, who usually refers them to a pediatric neurologist or psychologist.
Diagnosis is often made after the child misses one or more developmental milestones, such as:
3 Months Old- failing to follow you with their eyes
By 9 months old- non-responsive to their name being called, or lack of emotional responses such as frustration or shock.
By 12 months old- limited hand gestures and poor interest in interactive games such as peek-a-boo
By 15 months old- not eager to share interests with others, such as offering toys for others to see or general inattentiveness
By 24 months old- not picking up on emotional cues of others, such as when they are hurt or sad, and also not following visual cues like finger-pointing.
By 30 months of age- lack of imaginative play or make-believe, such as playing with dolls or action figures
By 60 months old- lack of interest in social play or turn-based games
Then, there are many other communication-based symptoms that may develop irrespective of the child’s age, but oftentimes first demonstrating itself around the three-year-old mark.
For instance, autistic children might find it very difficult to express themselves naturally, or even understand what is trying to be expressed by those around them.
Then, there is trouble with speech development.
Whereas a normal developing child might be able to muster words from as young as one year old, an autistic child will find great difficulty doing this or only be able to form limited words.
Also, since different autistic children tend to find themselves at different points along the spectrum, there is a very uneven pace at which this occurs.
It is not uncommon for autistic children to be extremely passionate about one subject and show complete disinterest in another.
These very children may become very fluent and be able to vocalize over that one topic.
And then, there’s the very uncommon phenomenon of hyperlexia, which is a child being able to read far beyond what is expected at their age.
However, they have difficulty comprehending what they are reading and might be unable to carry on a two-way conversation with anyone else.
The use of nonverbal communication and understanding of social cues might also be absent in autistic children.
2) Patterns and Repetitive Behavior Symptoms
Another common characteristic that is used to aid in the diagnosis of autism is the presence of repetitive actions and behaviors.
These may develop from early childhood, and persist well into adolescence or adulthood. Common behaviors include:
Obsessive-compulsive habits, such as neatly packing things in order and becoming extremely upset if they are disrupted
Repetitive movements such as flailing of the arms, clapping, rocking back and forth, spinning around in circles or pacing up and down
Impulsive actions that may result in self-harm such as biting oneself or banging head into walls and other nearby objects
Abnormal fixation on a specific habit, item, or activity
Thoroughly inspecting mechanisms behind working objects but never being fully able to comprehend the function.
Stiff or exaggerated movement of limbs, or general poor coordination. This might include only walking on the toes, or moving with a limp in the absence of physical deformities
Irritated and triggered by very casual stimuli such as touch or sounds, and unresponsive to more intense stimuli such as heat or pain
Limiting foods consumed to a very small list and avoiding anything else
Repetitive speaking patterns
Resistance to any and all change; this might include minor things such as the taste of toothpaste, or use of a different bedsheet
Very routine-oriented – sleep occurs like clockwork night after night, along with mealtimes, bath, and preparation for school
3) Other Characteristics That Do Not Fit Into One Of The Two Large Classes Above:
Inflexible nature and difficulty dealing with changes
Strange food combinations or habits, such as adding tomato ketchup to breakfast cereal
Disrupted sleep patterns, which may include difficulty sleeping in the dark with no problem doing so during the daytime
Impaired language, cognition, and movement
A heightened state of anxiety
Inattentiveness, emotional outbursts, and unexplained hyperactivity
Abnormal levels of fear – such as not showing fear in the face of imminent danger but showing excessive fear when looking at the drop of white paint on the floor
Different Types Of Autism
Unknown to many people, there are different classifications along the autism spectrum.
The recognition of the appropriate diagnosis is assisted thanks to the DSM-V manual, which classifies autism into five types. These are:
Autism with or without some degree of intellectual impairment
Autism with or without a speech impediment
Autism associated as a result of a genetic disorder or other known medical condition
Autism associated with other well-established neurological disorders
Previously, many cases of autism were classified as Asperger’s syndrome, which represents a smaller group of symptoms and a more specialized diagnosis.
The Causes Of Autism Spectrum Disorder
ASD has never been 100% tied down to any specific cause, which basically means that its exact origins are unknown.
However, research that has been conducted thus far points to the fact that there are certain risk factors that tend to increase the likelihood of offspring having the disorder.
1) Having Children When You Are Older
Although this is controversial, to say the least, the statistics don’t lie; the older you are when you have kids, the greater the likelihood that they may be born autistic.
The risk of having kids when both parents are in their 30s is about 10% higher than couples who conceive in their 20s.
The risk is even greater – up to 50% higher if you conceive in your 40s and 50s.
One such reason is believed to be due to the fact that sperm accumulate more mutations or genetic mistakes the longer they are continuously being made.
This means that a 50-year-old man has accumulated more mistakes, and thus, possesses a greater risk of passing on those genetic mistakes to his children.
2) Being Infected By Certain Viruses While Pregnant
Just a few years ago, a major outbreak of the Zika virus through parts of South America and the Amazon resulted in hundreds of babies being born with microcephaly; a condition where a baby’s head is significantly smaller than normal, being associated with severe neurological deficiencies.
Milder cases might have been associated with the development of autism-like symptoms not observed at birth.
Many other viruses also increase the risk of autism developing if the mother picks these up while pregnant.
3) Having Kids With Low Birth Weight
While birth weight is believed to be nothing more than a vanity measure, in reality, it might have real implications.
For instance, babies born weighing less than 5 ½ pounds possess a 230% higher risk of being diagnosed with ASD.
This is because it is believed that lower birth weight is associated with restricted growth of the brain and other important organs.
A mother that diets excessively while pregnant might experience this, but it might also because by a disorder such as intrauterine growth restriction.
Premature babies are also at much greater risk of being diagnosed as autistic if not carefully cared for during this tender phase.
4) Use Of Specific Medication
The notorious use of the medication thalidomide in the 1940s to 70’s caused major physical and mental deformities to thousands of children during that era, but the more common antiseizure medications valproic acid still in use today is also associated with an increased risk of ASD development in children.
5) Genetic Factors
There are many associated genetic variables that might increase a child’s risk of being born with ASD.
For instance, fragile X syndrome, or having a first-degree relative who is also autistic corresponds with a much higher risk of autism being diagnosed.
6) Heavy Metals
There is the belief anecdotally that exposure to heavy metals, before and during pregnancy can have an impact on autism development.
Metals such as lead and cadmium and mercury are the most commonly accused heavy metals, even though there is no real evidence to support this claim.
There was one study published in 1998 that generated a lot of controversy over its purported association between the MMR vaccine and the development of autism.
It was postulated that the mercury content (or more specifically, the level of mercury-based preservative thiomersal) in such vaccines triggered the disorder, although this study was thoroughly debunked by other studies and forced into retraction in 2010.
How Is Autism Diagnosed?
An ASD diagnosis is usually arrived at based on the evaluation of a competent psychiatrist, with or without the help of a psychologist.
The doctors would arrive at the conclusion following genetic testing, screenings and based on their evaluation and experience on the subject matter.
Screening is usually recommended between the ages of 18 and 24 months in an effort to properly identify cases from an early age and to improve overall prognosis and quality of life.
A checklist done by the parents consisting of 23 questions can also go far way in helping the physician to identify kids who may be at higher risk of ASD development.
Screening is scarcely used as the sole diagnostic tool since a slight developmental delay might give an incorrect diagnosis of autism.
Management of ASD involves the use of therapy to mitigate the impact of the disorder on the affected and immediate relatives.
There is no true cure for autism, but appropriate and sufficient therapy and go a long way in helping such persons live an almost normal life stop
Speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral therapy, and play therapy are all used from a young age to help increase brain development.
Generation rescue is a non-profit organization that was founded in 2005 with the goal of providing treatment, support, and hope for families trying to come to grips with the effect of autism.
Above all, it is a community of likeminded people who are going through or went through the same thing, so for many, the support is what they are most happy about.
However, the Generation Rescue Organization is not without controversy.
They tend to push the agenda that autism is caused by environmental factors, with the major culprit being vaccines.
The organization has Jenny McCarthy on the board of directors, who is a known anti-vaccination advocate.
Her status as a celebrity has caused thousands of soon-to-be parents to become spooked about the administration of vaccines and follow in her footsteps.
The organization advocates for the use of specific diets, chelating agents, and drugs as a cure for autism, which has never been proven by science.
The company also pushes for the usage of products sold by board members, including expensive hyperbaric chambers at $20000 each, foot baths that cost more than $2000, and even special lollipops.
The company also used to offer financial grants which would then be used to buy products sold by other members.
Generation Rescue had previously held annual conferences in Chicago along with another controversial non-profit by the name of Autism One.
At these seminars, Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who had first published the report that MMR vaccines cause autism, and referred to as the messiah in the anti-vax/ autism world, would routinely speak and help parents justify their choice in not giving their kids vaccines.
His report was pulled from medical journals 12 years after it was first published and he was removed from the British Medical register as a physician licensed to practice.
He has since moved to the United States, disgraced but still loved by his ardent followers.
Not surprisingly, communities that have taken his advice to the heart are the very ones now experiencing outbreaks of measles or whooping cough, diseases that had been on the verge of eradication.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is not a death sentence.
While it might be extremely frustrating for parents to deal with an autistic child, adaptability is key.
That child will develop very specific quirks, but with appropriate and proven therapy and medical supervision, that child can achieve a semblance to normal life within a few years.
Development per age might be delayed, but many kids born with ASD eventually catch up and can live fulfilling adult lives.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Can A Person Have Both Asperger’s Syndrome And Autism?
The answer to this is yes, and no. Yes, because Asperger’s is technically a subtype of ASD, or according to the DSM-5 definition, lower on the spectrum. Asperger’s, unlike typical autism, is detected later in life, often times well into adulthood.
Asperger’s is often associated with impaired social interaction skills, and not necessarily any language or cognitive defects.
Why Do So Many Autistic Persons Have Genius Capabilities?
Oftentimes, it is the result of obsessive compulsion. They develop an extreme passion in one, or a few things, and never settle- even when the skill is technically mastered. This also explains why so many extremely skilled musicians identify along the autistic spectrum, and even academic scholars.
Can An Adult Develop Autism?
No. You can be diagnosed with ASD in adulthood, but every single person is born with it. Not everyone will show obvious neurodevelopmental symptoms as a child.
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