Guide to Autism

Autism is a lifelong condition which affects development, behaviour, communication, learning and social interaction. Autism is sometimes classified under the umbrella term of autistic spectrum disorders, which include autistic disorders (often known as classic autism), Asperger's syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified. A spectrum is used because autism affects people in different ways and some people have much more severe symptoms than others.

People with autism tend to struggle with three main areas, which are sometimes known as the 'triad of impairment.' These areas include:

  • Social interaction and being around other people.
  • Social imagination and imaginary concepts.
  • Social communication.

Children with autistic disorder tend to have moderate or severe learning difficulties and most have below-average intelligence. Children with Asperger's syndrome, however, tend to have milder symptoms and are usually highly intelligent.

What causes autism?

In most cases, autistic spectrum disorders are classified as primary, which means that autism is not caused by an underlying medical condition; in only 10% of cases are symptoms of autism caused by medical conditions.

Research into the causes of autism is ongoing and the exact cause is unknown. However, researchers have identified four key factors which may cause autistic spectrum disorders. These include:

  • Environmental factors: possible factors that may increase the risk of an individual developing autism include maternal smoking during pregnancy, exposure to pollution or pesticides and a mother developing a virus or infection during pregnancy.
  • Genetics: autism tends to run in families and experts believe that certain genes inherited from parents increase the risk of a child developing autism. However, no specific genes have been identified.
  • Neurological factors: research suggests that the connection between the cerebral cortex, the amygdala and the limbic system has somehow become scrambled and unclear in people with autism, which causes difficulties matching emotions to different situations.
  • Psychological factors: there is evidence to suggest that people who have autism do not develop a concept known as Theory of Mind in the same way as other people. This inhibits their ability to view the world through other peoples' eyes.

In a small proportion of cases, an underlying medical condition can cause autism, which is known as secondary autism. Conditions that can cause symptoms of autism include:

  • Rett syndrome.
  • Fragile X syndrome.
  • Tuberous Sclerosis.

These are rare inherited conditions.

How common is autism?

Autistic spectrum disorders are fairly common and it is estimated that around 1 percent of children in England have an autistic spectrum disorder. Autism is much more common in boys than girls and boys are around 3 times more likely to develop autism than girls.

Symptoms of autism

Symptoms of autism tend to develop during the early years of childhood. Symptoms vary in severity and there is a wide range of possible symptoms, with some children experiencing more symptoms than others.

Early symptoms in babies:

  • Lack of interest in playing.
  • Lack of eye contact and not following another person's gaze.
  • Lack of facial expressions.
  • Lack of communication (your baby does not make noises when you talk or sing to them, for example).
  • Your baby does not show an interest in interacting with you.

Pre-school symptoms:

  • Delayed speech.
  • Lack of interest in toys and games.
  • Lack of awareness and interest in other people.
  • Behaving inappropriately around other children.
  • Developing patterns of behaviour, such as clicking fingers or rocking backwards and forwards.
  • Favouring routine: if the routine is disrupted, this can make children very agitated.

Older children and adults:

  • Difficulty forming friendships.
  • Language difficulties
  • Difficulty adapting behaviour to different situations and environments.
  • Appearing distant and disinterested.
  • Behavioural problems.
  • Difficulty adapting to change.

How is autism diagnosed?

Most cases of autism are diagnosed during the early years, so if you think your child has autism you should see your GP. Your GP may perform some quick tests (including the CHAT- checklist for autism in toddlers) and exercises with the child. They will also ask you about your child's symptoms and their medical history. If your GP suspects that your child has autism, they will refer them to a specialist for further tests and a plan will be drawn up to support and help the child.

How can autism be treated?

There is currently no cure for autism but there are treatments and therapies that can be used to ease symptoms, which enable children and adults to live independently and get the most out of life. Treatment for autism usually involves different interventions, the aims of which are to encourage development and address problem areas, such as interaction and communication.

Children with autism will be given a great deal of support to help them through school, which may involve additional tuition, one to one sessions with trained professionals, emotional support and speech and language therapy to help them develop key skills and make school a more positive experience.

Examples of interventions include:

  • Speech and language therapy: this programme focuses on helping children and adults to communicate better, which makes it easier for them to learn, express themselves and form relationships with others.
  • Applied Behavioural Analysis: this is an intensive therapy programme, which aims to break skills into subsections and encourage children to learn through rewards and positive reinforcement.
  • TEACCH: this method uses visual prompts to help children learn.

Interventions are usually carried out in conjunction with health professionals, teachers and parents. Many communities also have group support sessions, playgroups and nursery sessions for children with autism.

Living with autism

Autism is a lifelong condition which currently has no cure, but there are therapies and support mechanisms that enable children and adults to live a long and fulfilling life. Information and advice is available from charities, such as The National Autistic Society, as well as your GP and other health professionals. If you are struggling to come to terms with the fact that your child has autism, you can contact The National Autistic Society for advice and information about the condition. You may also find it beneficial to talk to other parents and joining a local group with your child may be a positive experience for both of you.

Structured, informative guide to autism

This guide is designed to educate and inform you and your family about the causes, signs and treatment of autism.

It is arranged as follows:

© Medic8® | All Rights Reserved