By Sarah Johnson.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social interaction, communication skills, imagination, repetitive behaviors, sensory processing, motor coordination, and cognitive development.
Autism is very special and unique, and there is not a set cause behind why a child might have Autism. Studies have mostly found reasons that create increased risks, which are not to be confused with a cause.
These increased risks can be related to genetics and environmental factors. It’s important to note that all experiences with Autism diagnosis can vary and an increased risk does not mean a child will be diagnosed with autism.
It can be diagnosed in children as young as two years old or adults over 18 years old. The prevalence rate for ASD has been estimated to range from 1:100-1:500. There are no known risk factors for developing autism; however, there may be some genetic predisposition. Some studies have shown an increased incidence among siblings of autistic individuals compared with the general population. Other research suggests that maternal age at birth increases the chance of having a child who will develop autism by about 50%.
In addition, certain environmental exposures during pregnancy such as exposure to alcohol, tobacco, drugs, infections, stress, and nutritional deficiencies have also been linked to higher rates of autism. However, these findings remain controversial because they do not account for other possible contributing factors like genetics.
That being said, many studies have found that certain genetics can be an increased risk for a child to have autism. The child must have a certain gene that changes, and if one (or both) of the parents carries one or more of these gene changes, the gene could be passed to the child (even without one of the parents having autism). It’s very common for autism to run in a family.
A specific study involving more than 2 million people across five countries, found that autism spectrum disorders are 80% reliant on inherited genes1. This data would mean that all other environmental factors contribute to 20% of the increased risks behind an autism diagnosis.
Those other factors are things like an older parent’s age (either parent), pregnancy and birth complications (early pregnancy), and pregnancies spaced less than one year apart. In a study evaluating parents’ age to the child with autism, they found an increase in diagnosis with children who has an older parent 2. The study also found that firstborn offspring of 2 older parents were 3 times more likely to develop autism than were third- or later-born offspring of mothers aged 20-34 years and fathers aged <40 years.
The gender ratio of those affected by autism is skewed towards males. A recent study showed that boys had twice the odds of girls of receiving an autism diagnosis. Another study found that male infants were 4 times more likely to receive an autism diagnosis. These statistics show that it is much easier for doctors to diagnose a boy with autism than a girl.
There is currently no cure for autism. Treatment focuses on helping the individual cope with their symptoms. One treatment option includes using Applied Behavior Analysis. This therapy helps teach skills through positive reinforcement.
Autistic children sometimes present the symptoms later, even if they seemed neurotypical toddlers- not displaying or characterized by autistic or other neurologically atypical patterns of thought or behavior. The most common symptom of ASD in young children is delayed language acquisition. This delay may occur because early speech sounds are difficult to distinguish from background noise. Some children with autism are totally non-verbal.
ASD also presents difficulties with eye contact, body awareness, self-care, and play. These problems often become more apparent when interacting socially with others.
In addition, many people who have been identified with ASD show an unusual interest in objects such as trains or cars. They might spend hours playing with toys or watching videos about them. Some individuals with ASD will use repetitive behaviors such as rocking back and forth, spinning around, flapping hands, tapping feet, or lining up items. Other examples include hand flapping, toe walking, head banging, hair pulling, skin picking, and nail-biting. Repetitive behaviors help some people calm down and reduce anxiety. But for others, they cause distress.
individuals with autism lack certain social skills. For example, they are brutally honest and do not know how to read social cues. Social cues are important clues used to determine whether someone likes you or wants something from you. If these signals aren't picked up correctly, then communication can be very hard.
Individuals with autism tend to focus intensely on details rather than seeing the big picture. As a result, they don't understand what's going on around them. Individuals with this disorder struggle to make friends, get along well with adults, and learn new information.
Some kids with autism seem oblivious to pain. Others experience extreme sensitivity to touch or sound. Many find pleasure only in routine activities. Pretend games and imagination, away from reality also seem stupid for children with autism. And still, others enjoy intense sensory experiences.
Some people with autism have trouble understanding emotions. It can be challenging to tell which feelings belong to themselves versus another person. People with autism may misinterpret facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, and posture.
The Netflix series Good Doctor's lead actor, Dr. Shawn Murphy is Autistic. Although he is portrayed to have all these autistic behavior patterns, he is a very brilliant surgeon. He has a photographic memory that helps him in his job. Although Dr. Murphy is a fictional character, he depicts the life of an autistic individual very well.
In real life, there are famous people who are known to be autistic. Celebrities like Daryl Hannah, Dan Aykroyd, Tim Burton, and Susan Boyle are said to have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. In fact, it was reported that one out of 88 Americans has ASDs.
What Are the Types of Autism Spectrum Disorders?
There are different types of autism:
• Classic/Typical - Most commonly seen type of autism. This form of autism tends to run in families. The child shows signs early in development and continues throughout childhood into adulthood. Symptoms vary widely among children but typically involve difficulties with language acquisition, motor coordination, attention span, self-care, and other areas related to daily living.
• Pervasive Developmental Disorders – These conditions affect multiple aspects of functioning including speech, movement, cognition, emotional regulation, and relationships. Children with PDD often show delays in developing appropriate play behaviors, interest in objects, and imitation skills. Some individuals also exhibit repetitive behaviors such as hand flapping, rocking back and forth, spinning, and finger biting.
• Rett Syndrome – A rare genetic condition affecting females exclusively. Characterized by loss of acquired spoken language, impaired fine and gross motor skills, stereotypic movements, seizures, microcephaly, and intellectual disability. • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder – CDD occurs when symptoms of ASD persist beyond age three years.
• Other Conditions Associated With Autism – Certain medical problems, birth complications, brain injury, medications, and certain infections during pregnancy may increase the risk of having a baby later diagnosed with autism.
Autism is not contagious; however, parents should know about any possible exposures before conceiving a second child.
Autism and Diet
Some researchers believe that there is a link between diet and autism. There are several theories regarding this connection:
• It could be due to nutritional deficiencies during development. For example, studies suggest that folic acid deficiency can lead to brain damage. Folate is needed for DNA synthesis and cell division.
• Nutrients involved in neurotransmitter production could affect how well neurons communicate with each other.
• Certain foods contain chemicals called mycotoxins which interfere with normal metabolism. Mycotoxin levels vary depending on where you live and what crops grow nearby.
• Foods containing gluten seem to trigger immune responses in certain people. Gluten sensitivity seems to run in families.
• Food allergies can contribute to gastrointestinal issues and behavioral disorders.
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A number of medical conditions can mimic signs and symptoms associated with an autism spectrum disorder. If your doctor suspects that your child has these conditions, he/she should rule out any underlying health problem before diagnosing autism.
Do symptoms of autism change over time?
Yes! Symptoms of autism tend to improve or worsen at different times throughout childhood. This means it’s very common for children who have been identified with autism to go through periods of improvement followed by periods of stability. In fact, some experts say that if we had better ways of measuring progress, many kids would no longer meet the criteria for “autistic disorder” because they’d already made so much developmental progress.
One of the most important things within the life of a child with Autism is an early diagnosis. The earlier a child is diagnosed, the faster the child can be treated; which has shown significant results in development.
The first step towards getting help for your child is talking to his pediatrician. He will ask questions like whether your child shows unusual behavior patterns, does she talk less than others her age, do her social interactions appear abnormal, etc. Your pediatrician might recommend further tests based on your answers.
If your pediatrician feels that your child needs more testing, he/she will refer you to a specialist. Neurologists specialize in diseases involving the nervous system.
If your child doesn't show typical behaviors, then he's likely to need additional evaluation from specialists such as neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, audiologists, genetic counselors, nutritionists, physical therapy, special education teacher, family support worker, and school nurse. These professionals work together to determine what type of intervention will best suit your child.
How Is Autism Diagnosed?
There are two main types of diagnostic tools used to diagnose ASD: observation-based measures ( e.g., ADOS) and parent-report questionnaires. Both methods provide information about specific areas related to ASD. However, neither method provides definitive evidence regarding the presence of ASD. Therefore, both must be combined with clinical judgment and observations of the individual being evaluated.
Observation Based Measures (ADOS) - A set of standardized assessments designed to measure communication skills play activities, motor abilities, sensory processing, cognitive functioning, and adaptive behavior. To learn more about autism and early signs please visit the CDC website.
1 Bai D, Yip BHK, Windham GC, et al. Association of Genetic and Environmental Factors With Autism in a 5-Country Cohort. JAMA Psychiatry. 2019;76(10):1035–1043. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.1411
2 Durkin MS, Maenner MJ, Newschaffer CJ, Lee LC, Cunniff CM, Daniels JL, Kirby RS, Leavitt L, Miller L, Zahorodny W, Schieve LA. Advanced parental age and the risk of autism spectrum disorder. Am J Epidemiol. 2008 Dec 1;168(11):1268-76. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwn250. Epub 2008 Oct 21. PMID: 18945690; PMCID: PMC2638544.
Anna E. Mazzucco, Ph.D., "What Causes Autism and Why Are More and More Kids Being Diagnosed With It?". National Center for Health Research, https://www.center4research.org/causes-autism-kids-diagnosed/