Definition & Overview
Autism is a broad term that encompasses mental disorders characterized by delay in mental development. It is also a spectrum disorder since it manifests in varying levels among children. Children with autism have challenges in learning basic skills such as walking or eating, as well as socializing or establishing relationships even with their own family.
Over the last four decades, the number of cases of autism has increased to around ten times. Although the figure is a source of concern, it’s also possible that the growing awareness has led to earlier and more accurate diagnosis.
The complexity of autism and the lack of concrete diagnostic tools are some of the issues that have yet to be addressed by parents, health experts, and doctors.
The definite cause of autism is yet to be discovered. However, experts have already established links between autism and several factors including genes. Based on studies involving families with cases of autism, if one of the identical twins is affected with the disorder, the likelihood of the other to have it is around 90%. Meanwhile, if one of the children is diagnosed with autism, the second child will have 5% chance of developing it.
Genetics, however, is as complex as the disease itself. In one of the more recent studies, it was found that more than 95 genes cause autism. But genes are also very dynamic. As the DNA and the genes are passed on from generation to generation, they tend to acquire new or combined traits and thus mutate.
Meanwhile, some health advocates and experts cite environmental factors such as exposure of the mother-to-be to pollutants and pesticides, along with certain drugs, as the possible causes of the condition.
Whether vaccination causes or exacerbates autism is a bone of contention for many. So far, there’s no definite study that clears the confusion.
Symptoms of Autism
The signs and symptoms of autism can vary from one person to another, but usually they start to show at around 9 to 12 months. Children with autism may initially exhibit:
- Lack of facial expression (they don’t respond to any stimulus)
- Lack of focus (they cannot look at you directly in the eye)
- Lack of interaction (they don’t react to toys and other stimuli that other kids find interesting)
- Inability to speak (children with autism may struggle to learn even a few words)
- Irritability or moodiness
- Difficulty in acquiring basic skills including walking and eating by themselves
- Struggle in interacting with other people, especially children
- Difficulty in learning things, especially once they are already in school
- Fascination or obsession over something
- Repetitive movements and/or words
- Inability to adjust to a new environment, people, and routines easily
While most children with autism display delay in learning a skill set, among others, some possess incredible talent. These people are called savants. They excel tremendously in what they do, whether it is in music, science or academics (like math). In fact, they fare better than those who do not have autism, and the skills seem to be innate or learned in a more unconventional manner.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Unlike many types of diseases, doctors cannot diagnose autism through blood tests or MRIs. Children, therefore, are often subjected to a series of examinations including a thorough check-up and assessment of their behavioral and mental development as they grow up.
The difficulty of diagnosis may be one of the reasons why children are assessed when they’re quite old enough. This is a problem since the best way to manage it is through early intervention.
Nevertheless, health experts encourage parents to submit their children for developmental screening at different ages. Usually, the screening can begin as early as nine months. The doctor may recommend more tests in the future if there are developmental and physiology issues (e.g., they are underweight for their age), or if the parent has other children with autism.
As for the cure, autism doesn’t have a cure yet, even if some parents claim to have eliminated it from their children. However, there are treatments that can help parents and children cope with the disorder more effectively. These treatments are typically carried out by a team of health professionals including neurologists, psychiatrists, primary doctors, speech-language pathologists, and occupational therapists.
Many of the therapies provided by professionals and experts on autism focus on skills development and behaviour modification. For example, applied behaviour analysis is a kind of therapy that puts a lot of emphasis on enhancing positive behaviors by discouraging the negative ones. As they grow up, they are taught more skills so they can live as independently as possible.