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What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Apr 1, 2022, 07:00 AM
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause particular social, communication and behavioral challenges. Usually, people with ASD don’t look any different from other people. They just communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged.

How do I know if my child has ASD?

The signs and symptoms of autism vary, as do its effects. Some children with autism have few impairments, while others have more. However, every child on the autism spectrum has some degree of difficulty in the following three areas:

  1. Communicating, both with words and without
  2. Relating to others and the world around them
  3. Thinking and acting flexibly

People with ASD often have problems with social, emotional, and communication skills. They might repeat certain behaviors and fear change in their daily activities. Many people with ASD also have different ways of learning, paying attention, or reacting to things.

Signs of ASD begin during early childhood and typically last throughout a person’s life. Per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), children or adults with ASD might:

  • Not point at objects to show interest (for example, not point at an airplane flying over)
  • Not look at objects when another person points at them
  • Have trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all
  • Avoid eye contact and want to be alone
  • Have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • Prefer not to be held or cuddled, or might cuddle only when they want to
  • Appear to be unaware when people talk to them, but respond to other sounds
  • Be very interested in people, but not know how to talk, play, or relate to them
  • Repeat or echo words or phrases said to them, or repeat words or phrases in place of normal language
  • Have trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions
  • Not play “pretend” games (for example, not pretend to “feed” a doll)
  • Repeat actions over and over again
  • Have trouble adapting when a routine changes
  • Have unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound
  • Lose skills they once had (for example, stop saying words they were using)

How is ASD diagnosed?

ASD diagnosis can be difficult since there is no medical test to diagnose the disorders. Doctors examine a child’s behavior and development to make a diagnosis.

ASD can sometimes be detected at 18 months or younger. By age 2, a diagnosis by an experienced professional can be considered very reliable. However, many children do not receive a final diagnosis until they are much older. This delay means that children with ASD might not get the early help they need.

If you think your child might have ASD, or you think there could be a problem with the way your child plays, learns, speaks, or acts, contact your child’s doctor and share your concerns. If there are still concerns, ask the doctor for a referral to a specialist who can do more in-depth testing of your child. These can include Developmental Pediatricians, Child Neurologists, and Child Psychologists or Psychiatrists.

Is there treatment for ASD?

There is currently no cure for ASD. However, research shows that early intervention treatment services can improve a child’s development.

Early intervention services help children from birth to 3 years old learn important skills. Services can include speech therapy, help with walking and help with interactions with others. It is important to talk to your child’s doctor as soon as possible if you think your child has ASD or other developmental problems.

Even if your child has not been diagnosed with an ASD, he or she may be eligible for early intervention treatment services. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that children under the age of 3 years who are at risk of having developmental delays may be eligible for services.

Also, treatment for particular symptoms, such as speech therapy for language delays, often does not need to wait for a formal ASD diagnosis.

What causes autism spectrum disorders and what are the risks?

All of the causes of ASD are not known. However, experts have learned that there are likely many causes for multiple types of ASD. There may be many different factors that make a child more likely to have ASD, including environmental, biologic and genetic factors.

Here are some:

  • Passed on through genetics: Most scientists agree that genes are one of the risk factors that can make a person more likely to develop ASD. 
  • It already exists in the family: Children who have a sibling with ASD are at a higher risk to have ASD.
  • Through certain drugs: When taken during pregnancy, the prescription drugs valproic acid and thalidomide have been linked with a higher risk of ASD.
  • Age of pregnancy: Studies show that children born to older parents are at greater risk to have ASD

Who is affected?

There is no evidence that ASD is linked to any race or ethnicity. However, it is about four times more common among boys than among girls.

For over a decade, the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network has been estimating the number of children with ASD in the United States. Their research is crucial to learning more about the disorder by tracking how the number of children with ASD is changing over time.

Do vaccines cause autism?

Studies have shown that there is no link between receiving vaccines and developing ASD. The National Academy of Medicine reviewed the safety of eight vaccines to children and adults. The review found that with rare exceptions, these vaccines are very safe.

A CDC study published in 2013 added to the research showing that vaccines do not cause ASD. The study focused on the number of antigens given during the first two years of life. Antigens are substances in vaccines that cause the body’s immune system to produce disease-fighting antibodies. The results showed that the total amount of antigen from vaccines received was the same between children with ASD and those that did not have ASD.

How else can I get my child help?

You do not need to wait for a doctor’s referral or a medical diagnosis to get help. Call your state’s public early childhood system to request a free evaluation to find out if your child qualifies for intervention services. This is sometimes called a Child Find evaluation. Where to call for a free evaluation from the state depends on your child’s age:

  • If your child is not yet 3 years old, contact your local early intervention system. You can find the right contact information for your state by calling the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (ECTA) at 919-962-2001. Or visit the ECTA website.
  • If your child is 3 years old or older, contact your local public school system. Even if your child is not yet old enough for kindergarten or enrolled in a public school, call your local elementary school or board of education and ask to speak with someone who can help you have your child evaluated. If you’re not sure who to contact, call the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (ECTA) at 919-962-2001. Or visit the ECTA website.

Research shows that early intervention services can greatly improve a child’s development. To ensure your child reaches his or her full potential, it is very important to get help for ASD as soon as possible.