Autism Spectrum Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, Risks, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prognosis and Prevention

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head profile with puzzle pieces in mind, Autism Spectrum Disorder

1Overview

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the name for a cluster of developmental disorder that includes a wide range of levels of disability, symptoms, and skills. People with ASD often have ongoing social problems that include communication difficulties and difficulties interacting with other people. They may display repetitive behaviors as well as have interests that are limited to one area alone or to one activity alone. The symptoms of ASD are typically recognized by parents or doctors during the first two years of life. These symptoms may prevent the individual from functioning optimally at a social, occupational, or educational level, as well as in other areas in life.

Some people with ASD are only mildly impaired. However, others are severely disabled. Treatment services can help these individuals function better. Families who are concerned about their children should visit their pediatricians and talk about screening for possible ASD. According to the CDC, 1 in 68 children has ASD in the United States.

It should be noted that Asperger’s Syndrome, which was previously categorized as separate from ASD, is now part of the spectrum.

2Symptoms

Parents or doctors may be the first to identify the signs and symptoms of ASD in toddlers and infants. In older children, school staff may recognize the disorder. Not all people with ASD will show these behaviors. However, most will show several. There are two main types of behaviors: restricted/repetitive behaviors and social communication/interaction behaviors.

Restrictive/repetitive behaviors may include repeating certain behaviors. It may also include having unusual behaviors. Children with ASD may have overly focused interests, such as with parts of objects or with moving objects. They may have a lasting and intense interest only on certain topics, such as facts, details, or numbers.

Social communication/interaction behaviors, on the other hand, many manifest in various ways. They may get upset by a slight change in plans or being placed in a new or overly stimulating place. They may make inconsistent or little eye contact as well. People with ASD may have the tendency to listen to or look at other people less often. They also rarely share the enjoyment of activities or objects by showing things to others or by pointing.

People with ASD have a hard time reading other people’s emotions. Thus, they may react strangely when others show affection, anger, or distress. They may fail to respond to other people who call their name or be slow to respond. They may also fail to respond to verbal attempts to gain their attention. They may have difficulties sustaining attention. In addition, they may talk at length about a subject that they are interested in without noticing that others are not interested, or without giving other people a chance to respond. They may also repeat phrases or words that they hear (echolalia). They may use words that seem odd, have a special meaning known only to them, or are out of place. They may have facial expressions or gestures that do not match what is being said and are accompanied by an unusual tone of voice. Lastly, they may have trouble understanding other people’s point of view or they may be unable to predict other people’s actions.

3Causes

Scientists are still unsure about the exact causes of autism. In all likelihood, there are a variety of causes and not just one alone. It appears that a number of different circumstances, such as genetic, environmental, and biologic, cause autism. They make children more likely to have this disorder.

There is a reason to believe the genetics plays a large part in determining whether a person acquires ASD or not. It has been found that fraternal twins are more likely to be both affected by the disorder compared to twins that are not fraternal. In a family with one autistic child, there is 5% chance of having another autistic child, which is much higher than in the general population.

Sometimes, the relatives or parents of autistic children have mild social impairments. They may have repetitive behaviors or problems with communication that may look like ASD. Research has also found that certain emotional disorders, such as bipolar disorder, occur more often in families of children with autism.

At least one group of researchers has found a link between ASD an abnormal gene. The gene may be part of a group of three to five genes that interact in a way that causes autism. Scientists suspect that a faulty gene or a group of faulty genes may make a person more likely to develop autism, especially when there are other factors present. These factors may come in the form of viruses, chemical imbalances, or lack of oxygen at birth.

Sometimes, autism is caused by Rubella or German measles in the mother. It is sometimes caused by tuberous sclerosis, which is a rare genetic disorder that causes the growth of tumors in the brain as well as in other vital organs. ASD may also be caused by fragile X syndrome, which is the most common form of inherited intellectual disability. Encephalitis, untreated phenylketonuria, and other diseases may also cause ASD.

4Risk Factors

Although scientists don’t know the exact causes of ASD, research suggests that genes and the environment interact to make a person susceptible to the disorder. Risk factors include gender. Boys are much more likely to be diagnosed with ASD compared to girls. Having a sibling with autism is another risk factor. Having parents who are older is another risk factor. In this case, a mother who was older than 35 and a father who was older than 40 when the baby was born in considered to be older parents. Genetics is a large risk factor. About 20% of children with autism also have other genetic conditions. These include fragile X syndrome, Down syndrome, and tuberous sclerosis.

5Diagnosis

Diagnosing autism can be difficult. There is no blood test, laboratory test, or imaging test that can be used to confirm a diagnosis. Thus, doctors need to look at the child’s behavior and development in order to assess whether he or she has ASD.

ASD can, at times, be detected in infants as young as 18 months. By the age of 2, if a physician diagnoses a child as having autism, the diagnosis is considered to be reliable. However, many children are not given final diagnosed until they are older. This delay means that many children with autism do not receive the help that they need until much later.

Diagnosing autism is composed of two steps: developmental screening and comprehensive diagnostic evaluation.

Developmental screening is a short test that can be used to tell if a child is at par with his peers for his age in terms of how well he is learning basic skills. The physician can also assess if the child has any delays. During the developmental screening, the physician may talk to the child or play with the child to assess his skills and level of development. Developmental screening is usually conducted at 18 months and again at 24 months. Additional screening might be warranted if it is seen that a child is at an increased risk of developing ASD. It is important for doctors to screen all children for delays in development. However, it is especially important to monitor those who are at high risk for ASD.

Diagnostic evaluation, on the other hand, looks at the child’s development by interviewing the family members, especially the parents. A complete history of the child is taken The comprehensive diagnostic evaluation may include neurological testing, hearing, and visual screening.

6Treatment

There are no drugs to treat ASD, however, drugs can be used to control some of the symptoms associated with the disorder, such as agitation and anxiety. There are only approaches for behavioral and social modification. These following approaches can be used: behavior and communication approaches, dietary approaches, drugs, and complementary and alternative treatments.

7Prognosis

 There are certain conditions that allow for a better prognosis for children with ASD. These include having an IQ above 50, being able to speak before the age of 6, and having a useful skill. Although ASD is a difficult disorder to cope with, the prognosis today for individuals who are diagnosed is much better than it was 30 years ago. Some adults with autism are able to work in mainstream jobs. In particular, these are the people with high-functioning autism. However, they experience communication and social problems at work.

8Prevention

There are a number of ways that can be taken to help prevent ASD, although the exact cause of ASD is unknown. One is to refrain from taking anticonvulsant drugs during pregnancy, such as valproic acid, which may cause ASD. Another is to ensure that children with phenylketonuria are diagnosed early on so that they have access to treatment and ASD can be prevented. Prenatal screening should also be done so that difficult pregnancies can be aided and oxygen depletion during birth can be prevented.