Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a group of complex neurodevelopment disorders that can be associated with repetitive and characteristic patterns in behaviour, as well as challenges with communication and social interaction.
Symptoms of ASD in children appear in early-childhood. Most symptoms affect a person's ability to perform simple everyday activities. “Spectrum” means that each case of autism is unique in terms of the severity of its symptoms, the skill level of the individual, and the level of disability in functioning. Certain individuals with ASD can fully function and perform all daily activities with little to no help. However, others may need more support and help with everything, including very minor tasks. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) states that other disorders—Asperger syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorders—in individuals with ASD are directly connected with ASD as these disorders are comorbidities of autism. A diagnosis of ASD comes with a test of intellectual disability and language impairment. ASD can be developed in any ethnic or racial group, and on all socioeconomic levels. Boys are still significantly more at risk of developing ASD than girls. About one-in-68 children have ASD, according to the most recent analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As mentioned earlier, signs of ASD usually begin to occur early in childhood for most individuals. People can easily recognize that the child is different around their peers. Children with ASD may become attached and focused on certain objects more than needed. They may rarely make eye contact and have difficulty engaging in regular speaking with their parents. However, some children may not begin to show these signs until late-childhood, leading to their second or third year. Children that show signs of ASD as late as two or three-years-old will gradually have difficulties with everyday tasks that they previously could do at ease.
ASD can vary in severity from person-to-person. The two main signs of ASD are social impairment or communication difficulties and repetitive or characteristic behaviours. For example, some children may not be able to respond to their names, keep eye contact, or interact with others without difficulty. Children with ASD may not understand how to play with and engage with other children, resulting in them wanting to be isolated more often than not. Because they prefer to be alone, people with ASD tend to have trouble understanding others’ feelings or opening up their own feelings. Some children with ASD might have delayed speech and language skills as they may unintentionally repeat the same phrases and respond to questions with irrelevant answers. Many children with ASD enjoy engaging in repetitive movements which can sometimes be unusual ones such as rocking back-and-forth, constantly twirling their hair, or making leg or arm movements that may appear to look like muscle spasms because of how random they are. Some children with ASD may not handle changes well because they are used to routine. For instance, if a child with ASD were to be picked up from school earlier than usual, they may have an emotional outburst and be uncontrollable. Other known genetic disorders, such as Fragile X Syndrome and Tuberous Sclerosis, have been linked to ASD. About 20 percent or more of all ASD cases have a correlation with these genetic disorders. Also, about 20 to 30 percent of children with ASD grow up to have epilepsy by the time they reach adulthood, and they are more likely to develop seizure disorders.
There aren’t many proven causes for ASD; however, scientists believe that genetics and environmental factors may be linked with ASD. Researchers performed a study suggesting that ASD might be resulting from disruptions in normal brain growth early in development, likely because of genetic defects. Autism is more common in kids born prematurely than it is in children born at or around their appropriate due date. Environmental factors have been thought of possibly being linked to gene function and development, but there are no specific environmental causes that have been identified as of yet. Genes play a key role in the development of ASD. For example, if there are twins with one of them having ASD, then the chances of the other one developing or being affected by ASD are between 36 to 95 percent. If a parent has a child with ASD, then the chances of their second kid having ASD are rather high.
It can be a relatively long and difficult process to be diagnosed with ASD. Because symptoms vary with each person, sometimes young children whose symptoms are quite mild may go unnoticed, undiagnosed, and untreated. ASD can be diagnosed by clinicians who will use the patient's symptoms to help with their diagnosis of ASD. In addition to using signs and symptoms, they will use testing tools according to the DSM-5, a guide that was established by the American Psychiatric Association to diagnose mental disorders. Notably early indicators of ASD that require an expert evaluation include: no talking or pointing by age of one, no singular words or phrases with at least two words by the age of two years, unresponsiveness, poor eye contact, and no smiling or social responsiveness. Other indicators that may appear later on include: difficulty making new friends and getting along with peers, inability to hold a conversation with other individuals, repetitive or unusual use of language, and peculiar intense or focused interest. Furthermore, these symptoms can change greatly with age. Typically, as a child with ASD ages, their symptoms will fade slightly and not be as severe if they have been getting treatment for a while. However, this is not the case with everyone. Some adults still need full-time service and support while others need little to no assistance. Once children with ASD hit adolescence, some of them may experience depression or behavioral issues.
Despite the fact that there is no cure for ASD, there are treatments and medication that can help. Educational Behavioral Interventions have been shown to be quite effective and successful in children with ASD. In these interventions, therapists will lead the children through highly structured and intensely skill-oriented “training” that will help condition communication skills and social skills. It will also help the child learn to analyze their behaviour and encourage “good” behaviour patterns while deterring “bad”/disruptive ones. Family counseling is another great treatment regimen for the parents and siblings of children with ASD as it can help families cope with the challenges of living with a child on the autism spectrum. Medications cannot cure or treat the main symptoms of ASD, but they can help with related symptoms as a result of ASD. Anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder are mental illnesses that can be developed in response to ASD, and there are medications that patients can take in order to minimize the symptoms.
“Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet.” National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, 13 Mar. 2020, www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Autism-Spectrum-Disorder-Fact-Sheet#3082_1.
“What Is Autism?” Autism Speaks Canada, www.autismspeaks.ca/about/about-autism. Accessed 5 June 2021.