Autism is a developmental disorder that may affect social interaction, language development and a child’s perception of his or her environment. Some autistic children may have symptoms that are barely noticeable and grow to be successful adults. Others with autism are severely disabled for life.
Who gets autism?
Autism is genetic, which means you are born with it, but the diagnosis is frequently not made until 2 or 3 years of age when language delay and failure to meet developmental milestones becomes more apparent. Autism occurs in about 7 out of 10,000 people. Brothers and sisters of autistic kids are more likely to have autism than the general population but the rate of occurrence is still low, less than 7 percent. Kids with other genetic disorders are at an increased risk of having autism also.
What causes autism?
Nobody knows what causes autism. Vaccines and vaccine preservatives were once labeled as possible causes, but extensive research has not proven a link. Autism is likely caused by a combination of factors. For example, perhaps there is a virus or environmental substance that affects kids who have a specific gene abnormality.
How is autism diagnosed?
There is no laboratory study or X-ray that can diagnose autism. The first clues are often reported by the parents. For example if the child does not babble, point with a finger or make other gestures at 12 months of age… if the child is not using single words by 16 months or 2-word phrases by 24 months of age… or if the child has any sign of losing previously gained language or social skills. A doctor’s office may ask the parents to fill out a survey that asks questions about the child’s skills and behaviors.
Some tricks that a doctor may try are to point to an object and say “Wow! Look at that red truck!” Most normal curious kids look immediately. Or the doctor may ask “Where is the truck?” and most children old enough to point will do so. Normal children love to pretend… autistic kids have difficulty understanding or performing pretend play. So, for example, a doctor may hand the child a pretend cookie to see if the child pretends to eat it.
Other medical conditions that may be confused with autism should be ruled out such as: lead poisoning, hearing loss, mental retardation or other genetic conditions such as tuberous sclerosis or fragile X. Some medical conditions may occur in combination with autism. Delays in diagnosis are common because either the doctor or family may not want to label the child with a life-long disorder until the symptoms are absolutely clear.
Autism is often associated with mental retardation, but many autistic kids have normal or near-normal intelligence. Autistic kids may avoid talking to or playing with other children, develop strange repetitive behaviors (such as clapping hands or head banging against a wall), or pay an unusual amount of attention to objects.
How is autism treated?
There is no specific medication for autism, but behavior therapy may be helpful, especially if started when the child is very young. A structured environment with a strict, consistent discipline strategy is important. Individual education plans or dedicated tutoring is helpful. Medications may be helpful to treat some of the symptoms, especially if the child also has a behavior disorder or seizures. Caregivers of autistic kids are heroes of parenting so if you know somebody with an autistic child please give them a pat on the back or offer to help with baby sitting every once in a while.
Prater CD, Zylstra RG. Autism: a medical primer. Am Fam Physician. 2002 Nov 1;66(9):1667-74.
Last Updated (Monday, 06 September 2010 14:30)