By: Jeffrey W. Britton, MD, Aurora Health Care

If you’re a parent, when your baby was born did you count fingers and toes? That’s a common first check of a child’s wellbeing.

A check that’s more difficult to do is to determine if your child has a neurological or development disorder such as autism spectrum disorder.

 What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the overall name for a group of developmental disorders. It affects about one child in 68.

Autism spectrum disorder encompasses a wide range of symptoms, skills and disabilities. The disorder includes what was previously referred to as Asperger syndrome or disorder.

The first signs of ASD show up in early childhood, generally by age 3, and last throughout a person’s life. It affects how a person acts and interacts with others, and how he or she communicates and learns.

Some children with ASD are only mildly impaired by the disorder. Others are more severely disabled.

Researchers haven’t found the causes of ASD yet, but studies suggest both genetics and environment may be involved. What’s more clear, based on a large number of well-designed studies, is that ASD is NOT caused by immunizations or immunization preservatives.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of ASD?

The National Institutes of Mental Health explains that children with ASD may:

  • Repeat certain behaviors.
  • Display unusual behaviors.
  • Be extra sensitive to light, sounds, temperature or even their own clothing.
  • Experience irritability or problems with sleep or digestion.

Children with ASD sometimes have exceptional mental proficiencies. They may have:

  • Above-average intelligence.
  • Abilities to learn specific topic details and remember them for a long time.
  • Exceptional math, science, music or art skills.

In social situations that require communications, children with ASD may:

  • Be slow to respond or not responsive at all to someone calling their name or trying to get their attention.
  • Make little eye contact.
  • Pay little attention to others in a group.
  • Have trouble with the normal back and forth of a conversation.
  • Have trouble understanding another person’s point of view or understanding their actions.
  • Use words that are out of place in a conversation or are meaningful only to those familiar with the person with ASD.
  • Talk at length about a specific topic of little interest to others in a group without noticing their lack of interest.
  • Talk in a singsong way or like a robot.
  • Respond in unexpected ways when others show affection, discomfort or anger.
  • Display no enjoyment in sharing activities with others.
  • Have expressions, gestures or body movements that don’t fit with the flow of conversation.

Who’s at Risk for ASD?

The number of children being diagnosed with ASD has been increasing. Researchers differ about whether the increase is because ASD is becoming more common or is simply being diagnosed more often.

A child’s risk for ASD increases if the child:

  • Is a boy. About one in 42 boys have ASD. About one in 189 girls have the disorder.
  • Has a sibling with ASD.
  • Has parents who are older — a mother who is 35 or older, or a father who is 40 or older when the baby is born.
  • Was born prematurely and at a low birth weight.
  • Has a genetic condition such as Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis and many others. About 20 percent of children with ASD have one of these conditions.

How Is ASD Diagnosed?

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s neurological or developmental progress, see your health care professional.

Here are some possible signs of ASD categorized by age.

By 6 months of age:

  • Lack of smiles or pleasant expressions directed toward others.
  • Limited or no eye contact with others.

By 9 months:

  • Not sharing vocal sounds or nonverbal communication with others.

By 12 months:

  • Lack of babbling.
  • Lack of gestures to communicate (such as pointing, reaching or waving)
  • No response when you call the child’s name.

By 16 months:

  • Not using any words.

By 24 months or age:

  • Not using meaningful two-word phrases.

At any age:

  • Loses speech or social skills already learned.
  • Avoids eye contact or prefers to be alone.
  • Cannot readily relate to other people’s feelings.
  • Remains nonverbal or has slow language development.
  • Repeats words or phrases that they hear.
  • Gets upset at even a small change in routines or being put in a new situation that’s noticeably different from what they’re used to.
  • Repeats behaviors such as rocking or spinning.
  • Has an extreme, long-lasting interest in a specific topic. They may focus on knowing details or precise facts.
  • Reacts intensely to certain sounds, smells, tastes, textures, lights and/or colors.

What Are the Treatments for ASD?

The reason autism spectrum disorder is known as a spectrum is because it can display with a range of characteristics. That means there’s not a single course of effective treatment.

Early diagnosis can help you and your child’s health care provider develop the right treatment plan for your child. Your provider can help guide you to more resources. Additional resources may be found through the Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs program. A discussion with your child’s school is important, so that an Individualized Educational Program can be set up if your child needs it.

A local autism support group can help you understand your options, make the right choices and reduce your stress. Autism Speaks is a reputable national organization that supports autism information and research, and has additional resources.

Much more information about autism is available from the American Academy of Pediatrics through their website.

If you have questions or concerns about autism spectrum disorder, visit with your health care professional.

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