Thursday, April 12, 2012

Understanding Autism: The Basics

Monika Pis, PhD, CPNP
Autism is a behavioral syndrome of neurological dysfunction. It affects more than 6 in 1,000 children and is more common in boys. In families with one autistic child, the chance of recurrence is 3-5%.

Currently, it is not clear what causes autism. Numerous studies examined the role of vaccines in autism, but they found no link. In the recent years, health care providers have become more aware of this developmental dysfunction and sharpened their clinical skills, thus making earlier diagnoses possible. This fact alone could contribute to the increased prevalence of autism in our country.

Because autism runs in families, scientists believe that a certain gene combination (one or more) may predispose an individual to autism. Also, exposure to certain medications (i.e. medications used to treat seizures) or chemicals (i.e. alcohol) during pregnancy puts a child at risk for autism. In some cases, autism has been linked to untreated Celiac disease, rubella, or phenylketonuria (PKU). There is no consensus on what causes autism. However, from what is known right now, autism begins in utero, before a child is born.

Autism is characterized by impairment in social interactions, verbal and nonverbal communication, lack of imaginative play, and restricted repertoire of interests and activities. The severity of symptoms varies from person to person. However, all individuals with autism experience core symptoms from all of these areas.

Although autism is present at birth, signs of the disorder can be difficult to recognize in infancy. Symptoms are usually first noticed by parents or other caregivers during the first 3 years of life. Parents may be concerned with the child not liking to be held or not wanting to maintain eye contact. The child may exhibit repeated body movements such as rocking or hand flapping; she may not learn to speak; or is uninterested in games such as peek-a-boo or pat-a-cake.

Autistic children may have unusual responses to people such as crying and having intense tantrums. They may exhibit intense attachment to objects and be extremely resistant to change. They have difficulty in understanding what others think or feel, therefore they lack empathy. They may not notice their surroundings, and at times be overly sensitive to auditory, olfactory, or visual stimuli.

If you suspect that your child has autism, or you are uncertain but notice unusual behaviors, talk to your health care provider. Early evaluation and treatment will assure that your child develops to her/his full potential.

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