Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is defined by the Autism Canada Foundation as “a complex neurobiological condition that can affect the normal function of the gastrointestinal, immune, hepatic, endocrine and nervous systems.” It affects normal brain development, causing communication problems, difficulty with handling social interactions, and a tendency to repeat “specific patterns of behaviour” (such as rocking, biting, self-hitting, etc.).
Given that it is a spectrum disorder, the symptoms and their severity can vary. Autistic disorder is the most extreme form, lying on one end of the spectrum, while Asperger syndrome and other autism-related disorders are milder.
According to the United States’ National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, early signs of autism in children include unresponsiveness to people, focusing on one item intently, avoiding eye contact, and not responding to their names. As they grow older, they may have a hard time picking up on social cues, such as tone of voice or facial expressions, and may lack empathy. They also tend to start speaking later than other children, and their topics of conversation can remain very limited as they grow. Maintaining their own order and a set routine is very important for many, and disrupting a child with ASD’s routine can cause severe stress and behaviour issues (such as tantrums, self-harm, aggression, among others).
While milder forms of ASD may go unnoticed throughout a person’s entire life, screening for ASD is usually made by having the person fill out questionnaire and/or use some kind of screening instrument. If the screening indicates the person might be affected, a comprehensive evaluation for diagnosis may follow, involving a team of psychologists, neurologists, psychiatrists, speech therapists, and other professionals.
As for the cause of ASD, scientists are not really sure. It is likely that ASD is triggered by a combination of genetics and environment, as well as certain irregularities in the brain (see image). Interestingly, if one identical twin has ASD, there is a 90 percent chance the other twin will be affected as well. In addition, boys are more commonly affected than girls, being four times more likely to develop ASD.
For most children, symptoms improve with age and treatment. This can involve educational/behavioural interventions with therapists and counseling that includes the family in the child’s development. Treatment can also take the form of medication to alleviate symptoms and autism-related conditions like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
It’s worth mentioning that children with language problems are more prone to developing epilepsy later in life. Furthermore, during adolescence many experience depression or behavioural problems that will require a modified treatment. Nevertheless, many people with ASD are able to work successfully and live independently in their adult life.
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