Autism Spectrum Disorder

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder or ASD is a developmental condition that results in serious, and sometimes severe, communication and sociability problems for affected individuals. It is also marked by a tendency toward repetitive and stereotyped behaviors. Persons with ASD experience considerable difficulty with ordinary social interactions that most individuals take for granted. That said, there is a great range of symptoms associated with autism, which manifest differently for every person with the condition. Though all face challenges in daily living, some are also gifted with unusual abilities in cognition and memory.

Symptoms of autism typically appear by age two or three but are sometimes evident by as early as 18 months. If a family member or loved one is displaying signs of ASD, the psychiatric specialists at Baptist Health may be able to help.

What Are the Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by a variety of behavioral symptoms, many of which appear early in childhood. These include:

  • A desire to be alone most of the time
  • Avoidance of eye contact
  • An inability to understand the psychological states of others
  • A dislike of touching or physical contact
  • A lack of awareness or interest in what other people say
  • Surprising and unusual reactions, often negative, to sensory cues
  • Repetition of certain spoken phrases or physical acts for no apparent reason
  • Limited ability to articulate thoughts, feelings, or moods
  • Impatience with imaginary alternatives to the immediate present
  • Disorientation at changes in routine
  • Loss without warning of previous knowledge or skills

Behaviors like these can have acute consequences. Persons with ASD often experience bullying and social isolation, problems at school and work, difficult home lives, and an inability to live on their own without considerable assistance.

What Causes Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Medical research has yet to pinpoint a cause for ASD. Considering the range of behaviors involved, there are likely multiple causes for different degrees of the disorder. It is thought that both genetic and environmental factors contribute:

  • Genetic factors: Scientists are persuaded that some combination of genetic factors is involved in ASD. This is because children with a sibling who has ASD stand a much higher chance of developing a similar condition. It is also true that ASD is more likely in persons with an heritable disorder, such as fragile X or Rett syndromes.
  • Environmental factors: Pregnant women taking certain prescription medications, including valproic acid, appear at greater risk for children with ASD. Some infectious diseases, such as rubella, and autoimmune disorders also increase the likelihood. Pesticides, lead, and various air pollutants are being investigated as possible ASD triggers.

There are a number of risk factors associated with autism spectrum disorder. These include:

  • Family history: The genetic aspect means that the incidence of ASD runs higher in some families than others. 
  • Sex: Boys are more susceptible to ASD than girls by a ratio of about four to one.
  • Parental age: Children of older parents appear to be at greater risk for autism than those of younger.
  • Premature births: Early birth may be correlated with a later development of ASD.

How Is Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosed?

ASD is a behavioral disorder without a specified diagnostic test. Determining whether a child has ASD will likely involve several types of overlapping evaluations:

  • Well-child checkups: Regular pediatric checkups can be expanded to include behavioral observations and analysis, if risk factors warrant it.
  • Parental interview: Your pediatrician may ask you questions regarding your child’s communication and social-interaction skills. This information can be valuable in diagnosis because ASD symptoms tend to present early and parents are among the most likely witnesses.
  • Structured social and communication interactions: Based on your input, your pediatrician may arrange a more formalized test of your child’s ability to interact and communicate with others.
  • Speech, language, hearing, and other developmental tests: Standardized tests provide objective criteria for determining whether your child is progressing normally or is showing signs of falling behind in cognitive and social development.
  • Genetic tests: Genetic testing may reveal the existence of an inherited disorder, such as Rett syndrome or fragile X syndrome, both of which are associated with a higher incidence of ASD.

Using this data, your child’s physician will make a diagnosis based on the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), as published by the American Psychiatric Association.

How Is Autism Spectrum Disorder Treated?

The goal in treating autism is to lessen symptoms through behavioral change, while helping affected individuals live more independently on reaching adulthood. Primary treatment methods include:

  • Behavior therapies: Behavior therapies focus on eliminating an autistic child’s negative behaviors and replacing them with new skills that reduce dependence on other people as social intermediaries. Motivation is strengthened with an award system.
  • Family therapies: Family therapies teach close relatives new ways of interacting with an autistic child, reinforcing the lessons he or she is learning in other therapeutic settings.
  • Educational therapies: Children with ASD often do best in highly structured and patterned environments. Educational therapies provide instruction in areas where it is most needed: social interactions, communication, and productive behaviors.
  • Physical or occupational therapies: Some individuals with ASD benefit from physical therapies focused on balance and movement, or occupational therapies with hands-on learning experiences.

Therapy is the chief form of treatment for ASD but is sometimes supplemented with medication. Antidepressants and antipsychotics have proven useful in curtailing some of the more extreme behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder.

Can Autism Spectrum Disorder be Prevented?

ASD isn’t preventable but it is treatable. An early diagnosis and response can help an ASD patient learn coping skills that will reduce some of the challenges of daily living. There is no curing autism but, when properly addressed, many individuals with ASD can become high-functioning adults.

Learn More About Autism Spectrum Disorder from Baptist Health

Autism spectrum disorder in a loved one is a difficult thing to face. Just remember: the caring providers at Baptist Health are on your side. If you’re looking for treatment options or more information about ASD, please contact a behavioral health provider with Baptist Health today.

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