Autism Spectrum Disorder Overview

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is generally noticed in early childhood. Affected people have problems with social understanding, social behaviour and communication.

The term ‘autism spectrum disorder’ has replaced ‘autism’, as it has been increasingly recognised that this is a complex condition with a wide range of symptoms and varying degrees of severity. Asperger syndrome (or Asperger’s disorder) was previously considered a distinct condition from autism with milder symptoms. Now, symptoms previously diagnosed as Asperger syndrome are included in autism spectrum disorder. However, people who were diagnosed before the new terms were introduced may prefer to retain their original diagnosis, and should feel free to do so.

Autism spectrum disorder is a lifelong condition. There is no cure but there are treatments available that can help improve symptoms and functioning. Diagnosis of Autism is often made by experienced Pediatric Neurologist like Dr. Krupa Torne thorough clinical evaluation supported by EEG & sometimes MRI.

What are the symptoms of ASD?

Children with autism spectrum disorder have problems in the areas of social interaction and communication. They also have restricted and repetitive behaviours. Symptoms may be noticed in early childhood, or may go unnoticed until children start school and social demands become greater.

Language problems may include:

  • Delayed development of speech and language skills.
  • Unusual speech in terms of tone or rhythm (may speak in a monotone voice or sing-song voice).
  • Repetition of certain phrases.
  • An inability to understand metaphors, sarcasm or irony.

Behavioural and social problems seen in children with ASD include:

  • Lack or absence of eye contact.
  • Solitary play and withdrawal from others.
  • Apathy toward other people’s attempts at communication.
  • A dislike of physical affection.
  • Inappropriate body language.
  • Lack of imaginative or pretend play.
  • Displays of temper (towards self or others).
  • Inflexible adherence to particular routines or rituals and difficulty with changes in routine.
  • Overly focussed interests, or a lasting, intense interest in certain topics.
  • Repetitive and compulsive behaviour (such as lining things up).
  • Preoccupation with parts of objects.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Repetitive movements, such as hand flapping or rocking. This is sometimes called ‘stimming’ and may be a way of dealing with stress.
  • Unusual postures or toe-walking.
  • Unusual reactions to sensory stimuli (sights, sounds, tastes, smells or textures).
  • Restricted eating patterns.
  • Sleeping difficulties.

What problems do children with ASD experience?

Children with ASD may appear aloof and indifferent to other people and often cannot understand the meaning of gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice. They may also have difficulty initiating and maintaining back-and-forth conversations.

Because of their limited capacity to understand other childrens feelings, kids with ASD do not develop friendships easily. Children with ASD often don’t enjoy experiences that other children their age enjoy, such as birthday parties, and are often not interested in other children their own age.

Many kids with ASD have strong reactions to sensory experiences — they may be either fascinated or afraid of particular sounds, textures or visual experiences, such as loud noises, bright lights or busy environments. Some kids with ASD have a very high tolerance to pain.

About half of kids with ASD have an intellectual disability, but among the other half, intelligence is average or above average. Kids with ASD can have excellent memories and some have extraordinary talent or brilliance in specific skills (such as music, mathematics or art).

What age do symptoms usually start?

Parents and carers often notice ASD symptoms by the age of about 2 years.

Sometimes clues may be seen in the first year of life. You may notice differences in non-verbal communication in young children, such as a lack of pointing at objects or waving, or not engaging in social games such as peek-a-boo. Possible early language indicators include a lack of babbling by the age of 12 months, and not using single words by 16 months or 2-word phrases by 2 years.

However, it’s important to note that many children display some of the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder some of the time without having ASD. It is when these symptoms occur often or most of the time that they may be a sign of ASD.

What causes autism spectrum disorder?

The exact cause of ASD has not yet been pinpointed. It’s thought that some people are more likely to develop ASD because of the genes they have inherited. However, researchers think that several genes influence the development of ASD, and that the cause is complex — possibly a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Families with an affected child have a higher risk of a subsequent child having autism spectrum disorder than that of the general population.

What has NOT been shown to cause autism spectrum disorder?

Some parents are concerned that there may be a link between routine childhood vaccinations (in particular the measles, mumps and rubella – MMR – vaccine) and autism. The paper that first described a possible link between MMR and autism has since been discredited, and subsequent studies conducted by reputable organisations (such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have not found any evidence of a link between vaccinations and ASD. Unfortunately, some parents remain concerned, which has led to reduced immunisation rates in some areas and several measles outbreaks.

The fact that more children have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in recent times also worries some parents. The reason for the apparent rise in ASD cases is improved knowledge of the condition and increased awareness. More children may be diagnosed these days, but that doesn’t mean that more children are affected than before.

There is no evidence to show that difficulties during childbirth or events during pregnancy are associated with ASD.

Treatment of autism spectrum disorder

While there’s no cure for autism spectrum disorder, there are treatments available to help your child reach their full potential. Treatment aims to improve social communication and learning and address behavioural problems. Early intervention treatment programs may improve outcomes for children with autism spectrum disorder.

Treatment for your child will depend on their symptoms and needs. A treatment programme developed specifically for your child can help them develop skills, improve behaviour and make the most of their strengths.

Intensive behavioural therapyoccupational therapy and speech therapy may all be part of the treatment programme, as well as education and support for parents. If your child has learning difficulties, there are also structured educational programs that may help. Your child’s treatment programme is likely to change over time as they get older.

Sometimes medicines may be recommended to treat some of the symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder, such as:

  • anxiety;
  • depression;
  • aggressive behaviour that has not responded to other treatments;
  • inattention;
  • hyperactivity; or
  • sleep problems.

Your doctor will want to regularly review your child’s medications to assess whether they are helping and to check for any side effects.