Autism: Piecing Together the Puzzle

As April comes to a close and May draws near, I wanted to take the chance to recognize April as the month of autism awareness. 

Causes

Over the past several years, autism spectrum disorders have become a hot topic in the media due to statements suggesting that certain vaccinations, activities, products, socio-economic statuses, geographic locations or genetic make-ups (just to name a few) cause these disorders.

The bottom line is that it is not yet known what causes autism, but scientific evidence has suggested that there is likely a gene-environment interaction to blame. Basically, there is no one specific environmental factor or one specific gene that can be attributed to an autism spectrum disorder.

When we consider the vast spectrum of disabilities present in kiddos with autism, it makes sense that we can’t pinpoint one specific cause.

Those who work in the field of autism often say, “If you have seen one child with autism, you have seen one child with autism.”

What we mean is that even though there is specific diagnostic criteria for diagnosing autism spectrum disorders, the level of disability and the presentation of each child is extremely different.

Diagnosis

Generally speaking, autism is a neurocognitive disorder. Children diagnosed with autism must have not only deficits in communication and social skills but also odd behaviors associated with the disorder.

Specifically, to be diagnosed a child must show:

  1. Delayed communication skills or difficulty with appropriate communication
  2. Inappropriate or lack of social skills
  3. Repetitive behaviors, restricted interests, or stereotyped behaviors

Of course the delays in communication and social skills will present very differently depending on the age of the affected child and the level of severity. 

Now, the third category is related to the behaviors that people often think of when autism comes to mind. These behaviors can include motor stereotypies such as flapping, rocking, or spinning in circles; repetitive behaviors that may look similar to obsessive-compulsive behaviors (e.g., lining things up in a certain order over and over); or restricted interests – being so focused on trains that is all the child can talk about.

Signs & Symptoms

At Children’s Hospital Colorado, we have recognized common signs of an autism spectrum disorder to include:

  • Poor eye contact
  • Not responding to one’s name
  • Problems with attention and shared interests (pointing things out to others for the other person’s enjoyment)
  • Underdeveloped skills in pretend play and imitation
  • Problems with non-verbal communication and language

Other “red flag” behaviors may also be present (signifying the need for your child to be screened for an ASD), such as:

  • Lack of positive affect (big smiles) and expressions of joy by six months
  • Does not babble, point, or make meaningful gestures (such as pointing or waving good-bye) by one year
  • Does not speak one word by 16 months
  • Does not combine two words by two years
  • Does not respond to name
  • Loses language or social skills
  • Does not know how to play with toys
  • Excessively lines up toys or other objects
  • Attachment to one particular toy or object
  • At times seems to be hearing impaired

Treatment

There are several different therapies available for kiddos with an autism spectrum disorder. These therapies of course differ depending on the skill deficits of the child. Generally, we recommend:

  • Speech therapy to address the communication difficulties
  • Occupational therapy and/or physical therapy to address any sensory needs that may be present
  • Social-skills groups that are available for school-age kiddos with a diagnosis
  • Play-based therapies that are available for younger little ones 
  • ABA Therapy based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis. This has produced the best results for kiddos on the spectrum based on scientific evidence to date.

What do I do if I have Concerns?

Talk to your pediatrician about your concerns as they can likely recommend a further evaluation with a professional trained in early development. Most states have programs that have professionals available to evaluate your child through your local school district: Professionals Listed State by State

For More Information:

Visit – Autism Speaks Website

Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor. I am a Master’s level clinician who has had training at Kennedy Krieger Institute in the diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders. I have most recently worked as a Learning & Developmental Specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. I can offer advice only based on my own personal experience with these disorders. Please talk to your pediatrician if you have specific questions regarding your child.

One Response to Autism: Piecing Together the Puzzle

  1. Very informative. Thank you for sharing. Though my daughter shows no signs of this, it’s still my biggest fear.

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