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Autism: Causes, Risk Factors, Signs, Symptoms and Treatments

Commonly asked questions about autism:

What Is Autism?

According to AutismSpeaks.org, autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a range of conditions that are characterized by challenges related to social skills, repetitive behavior, speech and nonverbal communication as well as by unique strengths and differences. There is more than one form, all which are caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental factors.

What Causes Autism?

AutismSpeaks.org says that until recently many people would have had to say they have no idea. We are now finally starting to understand what may contribute to the development of ASD through research. The first thing they note is that there is no one cause of ASD, just like there isn’t one form of autism. Over the past few years, scientists have been able to identify several rare gene changes or mutations that are associated with the development of ASD.

So far there has been more than 100 risk genes identified. However, in only about 15% of cases can a specific genetic cause can be identified. Most cases involve a complex and variable combination of both genetic risk and environmental factors. Basically, if a person has a genetic predisposition, there are a number of non-genetic or environmental influences that can increase a child’s risk for developing the condition.

What Risk Factors Attribute To The Development Of Autism?

Autism is a disorder that can affect children of all races and nationalities. However, there are certain factors that can increase a child’s risk of developing the disorder. The Mayo Clinic says the four main factors that can increase risks for children are:

  • Gender: Boys are roughly four times as likely to develop ASD than girls. About 1 in 42 boys develops autism where as only 1 in 189 girls will develop the disorder.
  • Family History: Families who had one child with ASD have an increased chance of having another child with the disorder as well.
  • Extremely Preterm Babies: Babies born before 26 weeks of pregnancy may have a greater chance of developing ASD.
  • Parent’s Age: While it has not been confirmed, it is thought that the older the parents are the more likely that their child will have ASD.

What Are The Signs My Child May Have Autism?

The most obvious signs your child may have ASD generally appear between 2 and 3 years of age. In some cases, it is possible to diagnose as early as 18 months. The National Autism Association says there are four main characteristics to look for in a child that may have ASD.

  • Social Impairments: Most children diagnosed with ASD have difficulty engaging in the “give-and-take” of everyday human interactions. When children with ASD become toddlers they may have difficulty with playing social games, don’t imitate the actions of others and prefer to play alone. They may also fail to seek comfort or respond to parental displays of anger and affection in typical ways.
  • Cognitive Impairments: May include having obsessive interests, being upset by minor changes, demonstrating little or no danger awareness or reacting strangely to the way things sounds, smell, taste, look and feel.
  • Communication Difficulties: Many young children with ASD tend to be delayed in vocal communication such as babbling, speaking or even learning to use gestures. Some infants who are able to “coo” and “babble” the first few months of life may lose these communicative behaviors. Others can experience significant language delays and will not begin to communicate until much later.
  • Repetitive Behavior: Unusual repetitive behavior or a tendency to engage in a restricted range of activities. Repetitive behaviors can include hand-flapping, rocking, jumping, twirling, arranging and rearranging objects as well as repeating sounds, words and phrases.

Is Autism Curable?

According to the National Autistic Society, there is currently no known cure for ASD. However, just because there is not a cure does not mean that someone with ASD can not be helped and treated.

What Medicines and Treatments Are Used To Help Manage Autism?

There are a number of treatment options available for those who are struggling with the disorder. Treatment and medication that is used will vary based on the individual case of ASD.

The goal of the treatments are to maximize the child’s ability to function by minimizing ASD symptoms while supporting development and learning. The Mayo Clinic lists the four main kinds of treatment that are used to treat ASD. They are:

  • Behavioral and Communication Therapies: There are many programs that you can enroll your child in that address the range of social, language and behavioral difficulties that are associated with ASD. Some of these programs focus on reducing problematic behaviors while attempting to teach new skills. Others try to teach them how to act in social situations and communicate better with others.
  • Educational Therapies: Many children who have ASD respond well to educational programs that are highly structured. Many of the successful programs include a team of specialists as well as a variety of activities that improve social skills, communication and behavior. If this form of treatment is started in preschool it often yields good results.
  • Family Therapies: Are used to help other family members learn how to play and interact with their children that help to promote social interaction skills, manage problem behaviors as well as teaching basic living skills and communication.
  • Medications: There is not currently a medication that can remove the core signs of ASD. However there are many medications that can be used to help control symptoms. For example, antidepressants may be prescribed for the treatment of anxiety, and anti-psychotic drugs are sometimes used to help with behavioral problems. There are a number of other medications that can be used but it all depends on the individuals case of ASD and what issues they are dealing with.

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View Sources

  1. AutismSpeaks.org — What is Autism?
  2. AutismSpeaks.org — Diagnosis, Causes and Symptoms
  3. Mayo Clinic — Autism Spectrum Disorder
  4. National Autism Association — Signs of Autism
  5. National Autistic Society — Cure for Autism
  6. Mayo Clinic — Treatments and Drugs

Resources

Kim J, Szatmari P, Bryson S, Streiner D, Wilson F, The Prevalence of Anxiety and Mood Problems among Children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome, 2000, Sage Journals, Vol 4 issue 2, 117-132

Howlin P, Outcome in Adult Like for more Able Individuals with Autism or Asperger Syndrome, 2000, Sage Journals, Vol 4 issue 1, 11-28