Autism, properly known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a spectrum of neurological development disorders that affect a child’s ability to communicate and interact socially with others, and is normally characterized by rigid, repetitive behavior.
ASD may be linked to inherited genetic defects, but no solid link has currently been found. It does appear to be linked to issues with early brain development, though it appears most clearly in children around the age of 2 or 3 years old.
While ASD effects children of all racial, ethnic and economic groups, boys are five times as likely to be diagnosed with ASD than girls.
Types of Autism
There are three different types within the spectrum of autistic disorders. These used to be considered separate diagnoses, but were merged under the umbrella of ASD in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association.
Autistic disorder is what is commonly thought of when most people hear the term autism. Children with autistic disorder often have significant delays in language development and challenges socializing and communicating with others, often also accompanied by intellectual disability.
Children with Asperger syndrome display challenges socializing and communicating with others, and they often have unusual behaviors or interests that appear intensely focused and repetitive. A milder form of autism, children with Asperger syndrome rarely have challenges with language or intellectual development.
Pervasive Developmental Disorder
Pervasive developmental disorder is often qualified with “not otherwise specified” as children who are given this diagnosis may show some symptoms of autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome, but not all and in a milder form. Children with this diagnosis often have some challenges interacting socially and communicating with others.
Some children begin to show signs of ASD within the first few months of their life, but most children begin showing between 24 and 36 months. Most often, children with one or more autistic disorders will develop normally until around 18 to 24 months.
At this stage, they will stop developing new skills or lose the ones they’ve already gained. They may not respond to their names, avoid eye contact and not speak. They may become overly upset by minor changes, have unusual reactions to sensory stimulation like tastes and sounds or be prone to rocking back and forth and spinning in circles.
Some children will not show challenges learning words or speaking, but may repeat words for extended periods of time or respond to questions with answers that are unrelated. They may become hyper-focused on specific tasks and become overly agitated when made to stop, or have an inability to understand their own emotions or those of others.
All or only some of these symptoms may be present in varying degrees in a child with autism. The pediatric neuropsychology team will work with the child to determine the best diagnosis that will ensure the most effective treatment.
While autism is not curable, a number of treatments have been developed to address the challenges faced by children with autistic spectrum disorders. It is generally agreed among pediatric neurologists and psychiatrists that early intervention for autism greatly improves the child’s chance of successfully managing their condition.
Applied Behavioral Analysis
This treatment is designed to systematically change the behaviors of the child based on behavioral psychology by encouraging positive behaviors and discouraging negative behaviors. It is also designed to teach the child new social skills and how to apply them in a variety of situations.
Speech therapy is important for children with autism as challenges with speech and social communication is a common feature among all ASDs. By working to improve speech and communication skills, the child will be better able to express themselves. In cases where the child is nonverbal, speech therapy is still able to provide help in teaching sign language and picture communication.
Because those children with autism spectrum disorder often have challenges integrating their sensory experience of the world, occupational therapy helps to reinforce their fine-motor skills to improve their quality of life and improve social behavior.
Physical therapy is an important treatment for children with ASDs to help improve their ability to feel and be aware of their body within the world. This treatment is most effective when it is part of an early intervention plan.
Medicines created to treat or help lessen the severity of the symptoms of ASDs both to lessen aggressive and potentially self-harming behavior and to strengthen the ability to conduct other treatments such as applied behavior analysis.
Each child is unique, and autistic spectrum disorders come in varying combinations and degrees of severity. Because of this, pediatric psychiatrists and neuropsychologists will work with the child and the whole family to ensure they receive the best treatment possible.