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Understanding autism

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April is Autism Awareness MonthYou may have noticed homes across the United States with blue lights on in observance of Autism Awareness Month this April. It is estimated that one in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined.

What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD), which include ‘autism,’ represent a broad group of development disorders characterized by communication, social interaction, and repetitive behavior difficulties. Those with ASDs process information in their brain differently than other people. Because ASDs fall within a spectrum of disorders, each individual is affected differently than the next, including when and how symptoms are displayed.

There are three types of ASDs – Autistic Disorder, Asperger Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (or Not Otherwise Specified).

  • Autistic Disorder, “classic” autism. People with autistic disorder typically face significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and display unusual behaviors and interests.
  • Asperger Syndrome. People with Asperger syndrome tend to have milder symptoms than those with autistic disorder; for example, they tend not to face the same linguistic or intellectual developmental challenges.
  • Pervasive Developments Disorder (PPD) or Not Otherwise Specified (NOS). People who meet some of the criteria for autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome, such as only social or only communication challenges, might be diagnosed with PDD or NOS.

ASDs affect people of all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Boys, however, are four times more likely to have an ASD than girls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 110 children in the United States have an ASD. While the number of people being diagnosed with ASD has risen dramatically in the last several years, it is unclear whether there are more cases because of a broader definition of ASDs and better efforts to diagnose them, or if there are simply more people with ASD.

Screening and diagnosis

ASDs often present themselves before the age of three. While there is no cure for ASDs, symptoms may improve over time. For some children with ASD, they will show symptoms within the first few months of life, while others may develop normally until 18 or 24 months and then stop gaining new or lose already acquired skills.

In order to diagnose autism, doctors must look at a child’s behavior and history of development. By age 2, a health professional can make a reliable diagnosis. However, many children are not diagnosed until much older, often delaying much needed treatment. Learn more about developmental milestones that children should reach and early intervention at the CDC Web site.

If you are concerned that your child might have an ASD, you should talk with your child’s doctor. You can also request a free evaluation from your state’s public early childhood system to find out if your child qualifies for early intervention services. This can be done without your doctor’s referral to specialists or a medical diagnosis. See the CDC Web site for more information on screening for autism.

What is the cause?

We do not know all of the causes for ASDs. The government, autism advocacy groups, and researchers have learned that there are likely many causes for ASDs. Some factors – including environmental, biologic and genetic factors – may make a child more likely to have an ASD. Children who have siblings with an ASD are at a higher risk of also having an ASD.

The CDC is currently working on a study (Study to Explore Early Development – SEED) to learn more about the causes of ASD and other developmental disorders, by exploring genetic, environmental, pregnancy, and behavioral risk factors.

While there has been concern over the relationship between vaccines and ASDs, according to the CDC, studies continue to show that vaccines are NOT associated with ASDs.  In order to address the ongoing concerns about a possible link, the Inter-Agency Autism Coordinating Committee is a federal advisory committee that works with the National Vaccine Advisory Committee to review research, advise the National Vaccine Program, and coordinate and promote research about vaccines.

Is there a cure?

There is no cure for ASDs. There are, however, many different treatment options which can generally be categorized as:

  • Behavior and communication approaches  - includes encouraging positive behavior and discouraging negative behavior, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and sensory integration;
  • Dietary approaches – removing certain foods from a child’s diet, using vitamin or mineral supplements;
  • Medication – there are no medications that can cure ASDs or even treat the main symptoms, but there are medications that can help some people with related symptoms  such as high energy level,  depression or seizures;
  • Complementary and alternative treatments – these are treatments outside of what is typically recommended by doctors, and may include special diets, or chelation (removing heavy metals such as lead, from the body).  For information about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) visit the NIH site on CAM.

Children do not "outgrow" autism, but there is growing evidence that early diagnosis and interventions can lead to significantly improved outcomes.

A child can begin treatment for development delays or specific symptoms such as speech therapy without a formal diagnosis of ASD.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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