1. So what exactly does it mean to be on the Autistic Spectrum?
Children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are commonly considered ‘autistic’ or having ‘autistic traits’. The American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organisation also use the term Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) to describe ‘autistic conditions’. But what exactly do people mean by this term?
In simpler language, a child diagnosed with ASD or PDD has a delayed development compared to his or her peers or develops differently, especially in the way they communicate with others, socialize and use their imagination.
These delays or differences are usually noticed or diagnosed when the child is about three years old. This age is critical in a child’s development, so the conditions are called developmental disorders.
Figure 2: The symptoms commonly associated with ASD
Original Source: http://media.kingdown.wilts.sch.uk/mod/page/view.php?id=7374
2. Conditions you say? Are there Different Types of ASD?
Yes, although ‘Autism’ or ‘Autistic’ is the most commonly used term, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD or PDD) can be of five main types:
A child with Autism often shows a delay in the development of spoken language (e.g. uses less than ten different words at the age of two) or does not speak at all. When they do speak, it is usually with a lack of expression or in a monotone. They may also not respond when their name is called, be unable to use or understand facial gestures and body language and prefer to play on their own rather than with other children.
Nearly three out of four children with autism also have a lower than average IQ (although this can be of varying degrees from very mild to very severe) and struggle with basic skills like dressing or feeding themselves due to poor muscle tone, or more complex problem solving or logical thinking needed for day to day life. Some children also suffer from fits and may be very resistant to change in normal routines. The number of children diagnosed with autism is steadily increasing.
A child with Asperger’s syndrome has similar social and communication difficulties as a child with Autism along with very limited interests. However they have an average or above average intelligence and develop normally in the areas of language and understanding of the world around them. Therefore children with Asperger’s Syndrome are often considered as having ‘High-Functioning Autism’.
Childhood Disintegrative Disorder
A child with this very rare condition develops at a rate comparable to other children but then unfortunately loses the development sometime between 2 and 10 years of age.
This is a rare condition that almost always affects girls. Along with the developmental delays associated with other Autism Spectrum Disorders, a child with Rett’s syndrome also experiences problems with movement and muscle development and may sometimes be unable to walk or write.
This is used to describe children who are less social than average and have some communication difficulties, but it is not severe enough to be classified as autism.
3. What Causes Autism?
Although researchers have proposed many different causes, the exact reason has not yet been found. This could be because we have only recently begun to consistently recognise and diagnose ASDs and collate symptoms. Various causes that have been researched include genetic changes, and differences in the structure and function of the brain.
4. Can Autism be Prevented?
Although doctors cannot be a hundred percent sure of how to prevent Autism until the exact cause is discovered; there are some precautions that can be taken during pregnancy and early childhood. The exposure to certain drugs and chemicals are associated with the development of Autism. Thus it is very important for the expectant mother to not consume any alcohol and only take medicines that are prescribed by a doctor during pregnancy.
This includes drugs that are sometimes prescribed over the counter. It is also important for the expectant mother to be vaccinated against rubella or German measles. Also the early diagnosis and treatment of some rare childhood diseases like Phenylketonuria and Coeliac disease may help prevent Autism.
5. Can Autism be Cured?
There is no known ‘cure’ for Autism. For many individuals who have been diagnosed with Autism, it is just a difference rather than a disability. Due to the wide diversity in symptoms, it is important to treat every child with Autism as an individual and any therapy should be planned keeping the person rather than the ‘disorder’ in mind.
Treatment, often called interventions can thus vary widely from child to child and depending on their symptoms include behavioural therapy, seizure medication and help with learning and living independently. It is of vital importance to ensure that children grow up confident and as independent as possible. In India although support is hard to find when compared to countries in the west; organisations like Action for Autism, Autism Society of India and Communication DEALL provided support for parents and children with Autism.