Childhood autism, or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), is a pervasive developmental disorder that develops before the age of three. Children with autism display abnormal or impaired development in social interactions and communication. Autism symptoms also include behavioral problems and restricted, repetitive behavior.
Unfortunately, no cure for autism exists: Children with autism have a lifelong condition. Treatment for autism includes intensive therapy to improve social interaction, speech language therapy and behavioral therapy to alter undesirable autism symptoms.
Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Childhood autism is one of several disorders grouped together under the heading of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). While the symptoms associated with different autistic disorders are similar, they vary widely in severity.
Childhood autism may describe autistic disorder (the most severe ASD classification), or it may indicate less severe forms of ASD, such as:
- Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition marked by normal intelligence accompanied by autistic behavior
- Pervasive Developmental Disorder, part of the not otherwise specified group of disorders that medical experts categorize as ASD.
Childhood Autism Causes
Although autism causes are unknown, genetics are thought to play a role. An identical twin of an autistic child is more likely to have autism than other siblings. Similarly, relatives of children with autism have a greater than normal risk of suffering from language, chromosomal and/or neurological disorders. Gender also plays a role: Autism is two to four times more common in boys than girls.
Over the years, a number of possible autism causes have been suggested. In the past, the medical community once attributed autism on cold, aloof mothers. However, this theory has no basis in fact: Parenting and family dynamics don’t cause autism.
Another theory surmised that the rubella-mumps-measles vaccine increased the risk of childhood autism. However, congenital rubella increases the risk of autism. Consequently, the vaccine may actually prevent childhood autism.
Childhood Autism Symptoms
Children with autism are developmentally impaired in social interaction, communication and behavior. Autistic symptoms within these three areas can be anywhere from mild to debilitating. Children with autism display autism symptoms from each of the following catagories:
Autism Symptoms: Social Interaction
- abnormal eye movement
- dislikes or avoids eye contact
- lack of awareness of body language cues
- lack of awareness or response to others’ emotions
- lack of empathy
- lack of interactive play
- limited understanding and use of social signals
- treats others impersonally or as objects
- no interest in other children
- unable to adapt personal behavior to social context
- withdrawn or aloof.
Autism Symptoms: Communication and Language
- communicates through nonsense rhyming
- develops language skills slowly
- does not talk
- exhibits echolalia (repeats words or phrases)
- exhibits poor language expression
- has difficulty in or inability to start and maintain conversations
- has impaired use of body language to add conversational emphasis
- has impaired use of cadence and emphasis in conversations
- lacks social language skills
- uses gestures rather than words.
Autism Symptoms: Behavioral Impairments
- aggressive displays
- attachment to unusual, often hard, objects
- need for rigidity or set routine for daily functioning
- repetitive body movements
- resistant to routine changes
- restricted behavior, interests or activities
- self-injuring practices
Children with autism may also experience sensory abnormalities. Senses may be unusually heightened or abnormally dulled. For instance, some autistic children find loud noises painful, while others do not seen to notice even loud noises. Many autistic children also shy away from physical contact.
While children with autism can be of normal to high intelligence, up to 75 percent of child suffering from autism are severely mental retarded. Childhood autism may be further complicated by secondary symptoms, including:
- eating disorders
- impulse control problems
- mood swings
- obsessive compulsive disorder
- sleep disorders.
Diagnosis of autism relies on parent reports, clinical observation and autism screening questionnaires. Early diagnosis of children is important, as the sooner autism treatment begins, the more promising long-term treatment outcomes.
Autism treatment aims to improve the overall functioning of children with autism while decreasing undesirable autism symptoms and behaviors. Support for the parents of children with autism through respite care, support groups and autism education resources are also considered part of the overall autism treatment program.
If childhood autism is diagnosed before age three, early intervention begins. Early childhood autism treatment includes intensive language therapy, occupational therapy, social play therapy and parental autism education. School-aged children with autism receive special autism education in the school system.
School-based autism treatment strengthens social, communicative and educational skills. Ideally, autism education provides structured socialization with the child’s peer group.
Medical interventions are sometimes necessary for autism treatment. Children with autism are at a higher risk of developing other mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. Undesirable autism symptoms such as tantrums, aggression and self-injury may also require additional medication.
Keep in mind that childhood autism symptoms will continue throughout life. However, early and intensive autism treatment can enhance autistic children’s ability to function in social contexts.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders (updated July 31, 2007). Autism Fact Sheet. Retrieved September 19, 2007 from the NINDS Web site: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/autism/detail_autism.htm.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (updated 22 March 2005). Autism. Retrieved June 5, 2005 from the NLM Web site: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001526.htm.