Autism is a rare brain development disorder that affects approximately one in 150 births, according to data released in 2007 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism interferes with a child’s emotional, social and cognitive development. A child with autism may have delayed speech development, resist cuddling and physical affection and not display emotion.
Autism is about four times more likely to occur in boys than in girls, and does not affect life expectancy. Autism is considered to be a pervasive development disorder, a term used to describe developmental disorders that affect more than one basic function related to communication and socialization skills. Several common subtypes of autism include:
- Asperger’s syndrome
- childhood disintegrative disorder (Heller’s syndrome)
- Rett syndrome.
While autism cannot be prevented or cured, it can be treated to greatly improve the quality of life of persons with autism and of their families.
What Causes Autism
Many theories have been developed to explain what causes autism, and most studies indicate that autism is linked to genetics and heredity. Family and twin studies of those with autism have determined that autism is heritable. Ten to 15 percent of diagnosed cases of autism have a known genetic cause.
At one time, environmental factors, such as a disruption of the brain’s development in utero, were thought to cause autism. Parents of autistic children suspected that vaccines such as the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. However, no research has conclusively linked vaccines to the disease.
Autism Signs and Symptoms
Autism signs and symptoms can be difficult to detect. Parents may think that their child is simply disinterested in learning or detached and reserved by nature. Other parents may write off the signs of autism as a phase their child is going though.
For this reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends autism screening for all children between the ages of 18 months and 2 years, whether or not the signs and symptoms of autism are present. According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) five autism signs and symptoms are possible indicators of the disease when a baby:
- does not coo or babble by 12 months
- does not make gestures (pointing, waving, grasping) by 12 months
- does not speak single words by 16 months
- does not speak two-word phrases on his or her own by 24 months.
Autism is characterized by developmental delays in language or social skills at any age. Beginning autism treatments early is best, which is why pediatricians stress the importance of an early screening and diagnosis. Autism treatments can begin as early as age one or two.
A Genetic Autism Test
A medical geneticist is a doctor specially trained and certified in clinical genetics. A medical geneticist can perform genetic testing for some types of autism with known genetic causes. A genetic autism test can predict the cause of the disease.
A genetic syndrome or abnormal chromosomes may cause autism, or there may be no conclusive genetic cause. The results of a genetic test for autism may indicate whether a couple is likely to have another child with autism.
While no known cure exists for autism, treatment can ease the stress of family members, as well as increase the quality of life of the autistic child. In some occasional cases, children stop exhibiting symptoms of autism altogether.
A study by the London School of Economics suggested that the cost of treating and caring for an autistic person could be reduced by two-thirds with an early diagnosis. Treatment plans for autism must cater to a child’s individual needs. Treatment requirements vary greatly, depending on cognitive, social and motor development. Treatment for autism also depends on parental preferences.
Specific autism treatments tend to depend on a child’s:
- medical history
- symptoms and the severity of the condition
- tolerance for medications.
While autism is a debilitating disease, early detection makes early treatment possible. With current advances in science, each person with autism can receive highly individualized treatment to manage needs and symptoms.
Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. (2008). Growth and development. Retrieved November 18, 2008, from the University of Virginia Web site: http://www.healthsystem.virginia.edu/UVAHealth/peds_growth/autism.cfm.