April: Autism Awareness Month

By Susan Varbedian Lucken, R.N., B.S.N.

April is National Autism awareness month according to Healthline. Au-tism spectrum disorder or ASD is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. Scientists do not know yet exactly what causes these differences for most people with ASD, however, some people with ASD have a known difference such as a genetic condition. There are multiple causes of ASD although most are not yet known.

There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people, but they communicate, interact, be-have and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives, others need less. The disorder al-so includes limited and repetitive patterns of behavior. The term “spectrum” in autism spectrum disorder refers to the wide range of symptoms and severity.

ASD includes conditions that were previously considered separate- autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and an unspecified form of pervasive developmental disorder. Some peo-ple still use the term “Asperger’s” which is generally thought to be at the mild end of ASD.

ASD begins before the age of 3 and lasts throughout a person’s life, although symptoms may improve over time. Some children with ASD show hints of future problems within the first few months of life. In others, symptoms may not show up until 24 months or later. Some children seem to develop normally until around 18-24 months of age then they stop gaining new skills or they lose the skills they once had. Studies have shown that 1/3-1/2 of parents of children with ASD no-ticed a problem before the child’s first birthday, and nearly 80-90% saw problems by 24 months of age.

While there is no cure for ASD, intensive early treatment can make a big difference in the lives of many children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these are some possible “red flags” that a person with ASD might exhibit:

  • Not respond to their name by 12 months of age
  • Not point at objects to show interest by 14 months
  • Not play “pretend” games by 18 months
  • Avoid eye contact and want to be alone
  • Have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • Have delayed speech and language skills
  • Repeat words and phrases over and over
  • Give unrelated answers to questions
  • Get upset by minor changes
  • Have obsessive interests
  • Flap their hands, rock their body or spin in circles
  • Have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look or feel
  • Have flat or inappropriate facial expressions
  • Does not understand personal space boundaries
  • Avoids or resists physical contact
  • Is not comforted by others during distress

Social issues are one of the most common symptoms in all of the types of ASD. People with an ASD do not have just social “difficulties” with shyness. The social issues they have cause serious problems in everyday life.

Each person with ASD has different communication skills. Some peo-ple can speak. Others can’t speak at all or only very little. About 40% of children with an ASD do not talk at all. About 25-30% of children with ASD have some words at 12-18 months of age, and then lose them. Others might speak, but not until later in childhood.

ASD has no single known cause. Given the complexity of the disor-der, and the fact that symptoms and severity vary, there are probably many causes. Both genetics and environment may play a role.

You can’t discuss ASD without discussing the fear that people have that there is a link between vaccines and ASD. According to the Mayo Clinic, despite extensive research, no reliable study has shown a link between ASD and any vaccines. In fact, the original study that ignited the debate years ago has been retracted due to poor design and questionable research methods. Avoiding childhood vaccinations can place your child and others in danger of catching and spreading seri-ous diseases like whooping cough, mumps or measles.

Risk Factors

The number of children diagnosed with ASD is rising. It’s unclear whether this is due to better detection and reporting or a real increase in the number of cases, or both. ASD affects children of all races and nationalities, but certain factors increase a child’s risk. These may include:

  • Your child’s sex. Boys are about 4 times more likely to develop ASD than girls.
  • Family history. Families who have one child with ASD have an in-creased risk of having another child with the disorder.
  • Other disorders. Children with certain medical conditions have a higher than normal risk of ASD or autism-like symptoms.
  • Extremely preterm babies. Babies born before 26 weeks gestation may have a greater risk of ASD.
  • Parents’ ages. There may be a connection between children born to older parents and ASD, but further research is necessary to es-tablish this link.

Complications

  • Problems in school with successful learning
  • Employment problems
  • Inability to live independently
  • Social isolation
  • Stress within the family
  • Victimization and being bullied
  • Treatment

No cure exists for ASD, and there is no one-size-fits all treatment. The goal of treatment is to maximize your child’s ability to function by re-ducing ASD symptoms and supporting development and learning. Early intervention during the preschool years can help your child learn critical social, communication, functional and behavioral skills.

Treatment options may include:

  • Behavior and communication therapies
  • Education therapies
  • Family therapies
  • Speech, Physical and Occupational therapies
  • Medications- specific medications can help control symptoms

Because ASD varies widely in symptoms and severity, making a di-agnosis may be difficult. There isn’t a specific medical test to deter-mine the disorder. That’s why it is very important to take your child for regular checkups. Generally a pediatrician may observe potential problems with your child during an exam and may refer you to the appropriate specialist. Early diagnosis and intervention is most helpful and can improve behavior, skills and language development, howev-er, intervention is helpful at any age. Though children don’t usually outgrow ASD symptoms, they may learn to function well. Remember to keep your regular appointments with your pediatrician especially in the first 2 years of life.

Sources: www.mayoclinic.org | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention |  www.healthline.com