Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental and neurological disorder that affects millions across the world. However, according to the findings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), US, ASD affects boys more than girls. The male-female ratio is 4:1. However, the exact cause behind this gender difference, or the condition itself is yet to be found. Damage in certain brain areas, faulty genes and family history are the commonly suspected culprits.
What is Autism?
Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term for a group of neurodevelopmental disorders which primarily manifest through communication and behavioural issues. The symptoms start showing up during the early years of life, anywhere between 12 and 24 months. In some cases, kids with ASD may experience learning difficulties as their thinking and problem-solving skills may be compromised. However, others may be extremely gifted. Also, their brain development are usually uneven. For instance, a child, who is challenged in terms of interpersonal skills may excel in arts and mathematics. In some cases, it has been observed that kids living with ASD have a wonderful memory. One of the common traits in people with autism is repetitive behaviour. They also find it difficult to perceive the thoughts and gestures of others.
While it comes to diagnosis, a paediatrician or a developmental paediatrician evaluates a child’s communication and behavioural patterns with the help of a questionnaire. He may also suggest DNA test among others. A person with ASD needs a strong support system and a congenial surrounding in order to lead a normal life. The treatment modality could be a combination of medicines and therapies like occupational therapy, behavioural therapy, so on and so forth.
Types of Autism
Clinicians in the field of psychology use a manual published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) for detecting a wide range of psychological conditions. It is known as Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). According to DSM-5, the latest edition of this manual, there are 5 subtypes of ASD.
- ASD with or without intellectual impairment
- ASD with or without compromised language skills
- ASD accompanied by a known medical or genetic condition or environmental factor
- ASD along with a neurodevelopmental, psychological or behavioural disorder
- ASD with catatonia, a behavioural issue characterised by difficulty in movement
Prior to the latest DSM, a person used to be clinically diagnosed as autistic if he had one or more of the following disorders:
Asperger's syndrome: In this condition, a child has difficulty in social interactions. His areas of interest may also be very narrow. However, a kid with Asperger’s syndrome is usually above average in terms of language and intellect.
Autistic disorder: When a toddler (less than 3 years) faces challenges in the areas of communication and play, her condition is identified as autistic disorder.
Childhood disintegrative disorder: In this condition, children experience normal development for the first two years of life. However, they lose their communication and social skills after that, partially or completely.
Pervasive developmental disorder (PDD or atypical autism): Your child may fall in this category of ASD if he displays some autistic traits but doesn’t fulfil the criteria of other categories.
As already mentioned, the symptoms of autism appear typically within the first two years of life. However, this may vary. DSM-5 has classified ASD symptoms in two broad categories. A child will be diagnosed with autism if he or she experiences all three symptoms in first category and at least two from the second category. Here, we take you through both the categories.
Symptoms related to communication and social interaction issues:
- Trouble in sharing emotions and interests, or striking a normal conversation
- Challenges in non-verbal communication: Avoiding eye contact and reading others’ gestures
- Trouble in forming and maintaining any sort of maintaining relationships
Symptoms related to restricted or repetitive behavioural pattern:
- Repetitive movements coupled with speech patterns
- Inflexibility about routine and certain behaviours
- An increase or decrease in negative reaction to certain sound, colour, smell, etc.
- Fixation on specific interests
What Causes Autism?
The cause behind autism hasn’t been identified yet. However, psychiatrists and developmental paediatricians speculate that problems in some areas of the brain can be a potential trigger behind ASD. Mutation in gene, genetic predisposition, exposure to environmental toxins and gender can also up the risk of this condition. Apart from this, there is another factor that can make your child more vulnerable to autism: Exposure to drugs, alcohol, anti-seizure medicines during pregnancy. Maternal diabetes and obesity can also be other risk factors.
Diagnosis of Autism
Diagnosing autism can be tricky because it is based on communication and behavioural symptoms. Diagnosis and treatment may include multiple specialists: developmental paediatricians, psychiatrists, psychologists, language and speech trainers, occupational therapists, etc. There is a two-fold process of diagnosis for children:
This method will require filling up of a questionnaire which will help the doctor identify specific areas of problem, starting from learning difficulties to speech, behaviour and others. However, it is important to mention that this screening doesn’t confirm an autism diagnosis.
If this developmental screening hints at autism spectrum disorder, then other tests may be recommended. They include DNA testing for genetic diseases and visual and audio tests to rule out ophthalmological and hearing issues that has no connection with autism among others.
Treatment of Autism
While there is no cure for autism, certain medicines and therapies can definitely help in managing it well. The medicines are aimed at reducing associated complications like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety. There are various therapies that help your child with different aspects of autism. For example, Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) encourages positive behaviour and helps in bringing down negative behaviour. Occupational therapy, on the other hand, can be helpful in boosting functional skills like dressing, eating, etc. Your little one may benefit from sensory integration therapy if he has issues with things pertaining to our senses: Touch, sound, smell, colour, etc. Speech therapy enhances language and communication skills.
A tailor-made meal plan will help your child live better with ASD. It can play an instrumental role in easing certain symptoms that accompany the condition while ensuring that your child gets all the essential nutrients. Kids with autism experience digestive issues like constipation, abdominal pain and vomiting. Consult a dietician to chalk out a meal plan that help your little one deal with these conditions. It’s good to include probiotics in his diet. Loaded with gut-friendly bacteria, they are good for controlling two conditions associated with ASD: Swelling and inflammation. It has been found that kids with autism are deficient of vitamins. A well-planned diet is essential to replenish them. Also, it’s good idea to include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. They boost cognitive capacity. Gluten-free diet is often recommended for ASD. However, there isn’t enough scientific evidence to prove its efficacy.
Alongside medication and therapies, parents of autistic kids have a crucial role to play in helping their little ones live better. The first and foremost responsibility is to create an environment that is congenial for a child with ASD to thrive. Kids with this condition need structure and routine in order to function well. Moreover, plan lends them a sense of security. Consider joining a support group where your child gets to be with kids who experience similar challenges. While he can learn from how others are trying to overcome their difficulties, your little one will also get a sense of belonging. This can be a good opportunity to develop interpersonal skills because there is no risk of discrimination.
Prevention of Autism
As already mentioned, the cause of autism is unknown. So, it’s not possible to prevent the condition. On rare occasions, autism is the result of a birth defect triggered by the mother’s exposure to toxic chemicals during the gestational period. Leading a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy can reduce your risk of having an autistic child. Here are the small but significant steps that every expecting needs to follow:
- Avoid alcohol and smoking
- Don’t skip your medicines and supplements
- Make sure you have a balanced meal loaded with essential nutrients
- Get treated for your existing health conditions. Be extra cautious about your treatment protocol if you have coeliac disease