Autism is a developmental disorder that begins in early childhood, and it is characterized by impaired development in communication, social interaction, and behavior. Autism afflicts one out of every 150 children and tends to affect about five boys to every one girl.

Autism is classified as a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), a category of disorders that is  often described interchangeably with the broad spectrum of developmental disorders affecting young children and adults called the autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). Some children may have speech, whereas others may have little or no speech.  Less severe cases may be diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) or with Asperger’s Syndrome (these children typically have normal speech, but they have many “autistic” social and behavioral problems)

The ways in which autism is exhibited can differ greatly amongst children. Left untreated, many autistic children will not develop effective social skills and may not learn to talk or behave appropriately.

 

Early Signs of Autism

While not all children exhibited these early signs are autistic, the presence of more than 1 in each each category may serve as a warning sign to parents.

Area of Development Warning Signs
Social The child:

  • doesn’t consistently respond to her name when called·  doesn’t smile at caregivers
  • doesn’t use gestures independently – for example, she doesn’t wave bye-bye without being told to, or without copying someone else who is waving
  • doesn’t show interest in other children
  • prefers to be on their own
  • doesn’t enjoy or engage in games such as peekaboo or patty cake
Communication The child:

  • doesn’t use gestures – for example, he doesn’t raise his arms when he wants to be picked up, or reach out to something he wants·  doesn’t use eye contact to get someone’s attention or communicate – for example, he doesn’t look at a parent then look at a snack to indicate that he wants the snack
  • doesn’t point to show people things, to share an experience or to request or indicate that he wants something – for example, when he’s being read to, he doesn’t point to pictures in books and look back to show the reader
  • doesn’t engage in pretend play – for example, he doesn’t play with stuffed toys
  • doesn’t sound like he’s having a conversation with you when he babbles
  • doesn’t understand simple one-step instructions – for example, ‘Give the block to me’ or ‘Show me the dog’
Behaviour The child:

  • has an intense interest in certain objects and becomes ‘stuck’ on particular toys or objects·  focuses narrowly on objects and activities, such as turning the wheels of a toy car or lining up objects
  • is easily upset by change and must follow routines – for example, sleeping, feeding or leaving the house must be done in the same way every time
  • repeats body movements or has unusual body movements, such as back-arching, hand-flapping and walking on her toes.
Sensory The child:

  • is extremely sensitive to sensory experiences – for example, he’s easily upset by certain sounds, or will only eat foods with a certain texture
  • seeks sensory stimulation – for example, he likes deep pressure, seeks vibrating objects like the washing machine, or flutters his fingers to the side of his eyes to watch the light flicker

How is Autism Diagnosed?
There is no single test available to diagnose ASD. Instead, diagnosis is based on watching how the child plays and interacts with others (current development), interviewing parents, and reviewing the child’s developmental history (past development).

By using a combination of tools, professionals can diagnose a child with ASD, and determine where on the spectrum the child falls.

 

Some of the tests and screening measures that can assist in the diagnosis of ASD include:

·       Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS)
·       Autism Diagnostic Interview (ADI)

When diagnosing autism, professionals like psychiatrists and psychologists will refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR). This tool breaks down the signs and symptoms of ASD into categories. It also states how many of these must be present in each category to confirm a diagnosis of ASD in children over three years of age.

When the child is older, he/she should also receive a cognitive assessment (IQ test), which can identify developmental strengths and weaknesses. The assessment will also identify whether your child has an intellectual disability, common in many (but not all) children with autism. It will also be useful for school placement purposes.

 

Interventions for Autism
There is no cure for ASDs.  Therapies and behavioral interventions are designed to remedy specific symptoms and can bring about substantial improvement.  The ideal treatment plan coordinates therapies and interventions that meet the specific needs of individual children.  Most health care professionals agree that the early, consistent interventions would yield the best results.

 

Some of the more common interventions for Autistic Children include: 

Educational/behavioral interventions: 
Therapists use highly structured and intensive skill-oriented training sessions to help children develop social and language skills, such as Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA).  Family counseling for the parents and siblings of children with an ASD often helps families cope with the particular challenges of living with a child with an ASD.

Based on the principles of ABA, Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a way for people with autism to communicate without relying on speech. Instead, they use cards that feature pictures, symbols, words or photographs which represent tasks, actions or objects

Sensory Integration:
Many autistic individuals have sensory problems, which can range from mild to severe. These problems involve either hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to stimulation. Sensory integration focuses primarily on three senses — vestibular (i.e., motion, balance), tactile (i.e., touch), and proprioception (e.g., joints, ligaments). Many techniques are used to stimulate these senses in order to normalize them and it is usually done through Occupational Therapy.

Speech Therapy:
This may be beneficial to many autistic children, and when integrated with other home and school programs, will help enhance the quality of speech and communication.

Medications: 
Doctors may prescribe medications for treatment of specific autism-related symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Antipsychotic medications are used to treat severe behavioral problems.  Seizures can be treated with one or more anticonvulsant drugs.  Medication used to treat people with attention deficit disorder can be used effectively to help decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity.

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