Autism is a brain development disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to communicate and therefore relate to other people.   It manifests during childhood, usually at the age of 1.5 to 2 years old. Autistic children have trouble with social interactions, verbal and non-verbal communication and exhibit restricted or repetitive behaviors.  Those who are diagnosed, fall along a spectrum, where their symptoms can range from mild to severe.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association coined the term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and grouped autism-related disorders under one umbrella. These include conditions that were previously characterized as:

  1. Asperger’s syndrome:  These are highly functional, intelligent, individuals, with milder symptoms who are able to live relatively normal lives, with behavior training. But they do have trouble interacting with people and have very focused rigid interests and habits.
  2. Autistic disorder: These are usually children diagnosed with the typical signs and symptoms of autism.
  3. Childhood disintegrative disorder:These children have normal development for at least 2 years. However, they begin to exhibit symptoms of autism, losing social and communication skills over a period of time.
  4. Pervasive developmental disorder(PDD or atypical autism): Children who display signs similar to those on the autism spectrum, but do not fit into any other category.

Some of the symptoms of an Autism Spectrum Disorder in a child may include:

  • Compulsive, Repeated motions (rocking or spinning)
  • Avoiding eye contact or physical touch
  • Delays in speaking (no pointing or babbling by 12 months, no single words by 16 months, no pretend games by 18 months, no two-word phrases by 2 years old)
  • Speaking in a robotic or sing song way
  • Repeating words or phrases (echolalia), loss of language skills
  • Unable to abide minor changes in surroundings or schedules
  • Does not respond someone calling his/her own name
  • Does not smile or respond to social cues from others and may not use gestures, body posture, or facial expressions to communicate.
  • May focus intently on an object, while ignoring others around them for long periods of time.
  • Some physical manifestations may include constipation or having trouble sleeping.

Causes of Autism

Autism is believed to be caused due to a problem with the brain’s capacity to process language and communication and differentiate and interpret sensory inputs. There are a few common risk factors, like genetic predispositions in families, increased chances if the mother is older, or in cases of drug or alcohol abuse during pregnancy. There is no evidence of vaccines causing autism. It does seem to affect boys more often than girls, but it occurs in children of any ethnicity, race or socio-economic state.

Diagnosis of Autism:

There is no definitive medical or genetic test for autism. Instead it is diagnosed usually by extensive history taking and observations based on comprehensive checklists or tools, taken by clinical child neurologists or psychiatrists trained to do so. Some of these psychometric tools are the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) and the  Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) which are mapped to either the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual DSM 4 or 5. To keep in mind the cultural background of children in India, INCLEN Diagnostic Tool for Autism Spectrum Disorder (INDT-ASD), was developed and validated using CARS and is available in various regional languages.

It is extremely important to get children screened, evaluated and diagnosed by trained pediatric neurologists or child psychiatrists, as early diagnosis and interventions are helpful.

Management of Autism

There is no permanent treatment for autism, and it is a lifelong condition. Children diagnosed early can be provided with behavior modification therapy and comprehensive, specialized educational plans, helping children with autism with their daily activities, making it easier for them to interact with society. Involving the child’s family, teachers and care givers and educating them about various interventions available also help the child to adapt easier.

This may include:

  1. Speech and occupational therapy and communication skill development.
  2. Assistive Technology like communication boards or electronic tablets to help with communication example: The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) uses picture symbols to communicate.
  3. Medications to aid with certain symptoms like helping to manage high energy levels, help with focusing, depression, anxiety or seizures.
  4. There is no definitive evidence of any specific diet in management of ASD.

Disclaimer: The above information is for awareness and education purposes only and cannot be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition. Please consult with a physician for any concerns or questions

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