Overview – What is it?
Autism is a serious neurological and developmental disorder that begins at childhood and affects a person’s social interaction and development of language and communication skills. Some of its risk factors are having very low birth weight, having a sibling who has autism and certain genetic conditions like Down Syndrome. Due to the range of symptoms this condition causes it is referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Symptoms caused by autism include delayed speech and language skills, avoiding eye contact, and getting upset by slight changes in routine, among other symptoms.
ASD is diagnosed by observing a child’s behaviour and developments after which treatment can be carried out using medication and through therapies such as behavioural, educational and psychological therapy. A mother can help to prevent her child from being born autistic by getting regular check-ups during her pregnancy, eating healthy, exercising and getting the recommended supplements and vitamins, among other ways.
Causes – What causes it?
The exact cause of autism is not known, however, there are several risk factors believed to increase the chance of developing this disorder. These include:
- Having a close family member with ASD.
- Some genetic conditions like Down Syndrome, Rett Syndrome and Fragile X
- Syndrome increase the risk of developing ASD.
- Giving birth to a baby with a very low birth weight or the baby being born early.
- Taking alcohol or abusing other drugs during pregnancy.
- Not getting vaccinated against rubella before getting pregnant can also increase the risk of giving birth to a child with ASD.
Symptoms – What do you feel?
People may be affected differently by ASD and the symptoms can be very mild or severe. Some children start showing symptoms when they are only a few months old while others after 2 or even 4 years. ASD symptoms can be divided into social communication, and repetitive behaviours.
Social communication/ Interaction behaviours challenges
- Failing, being slow or not responding to someone
- Difficulty with back and forth conversation
- Having gestures, movements and facial expressions that do not match what is being said
- Trouble understanding another person’s point of view
- Making little or inconsistent eye contact
Repetitive/ Restricted behaviours
- Having overly focused interests for instance, in moving objects
- Getting upset by slight changes in routine
- Repeating certain behaviours or having unusual behaviours, such as repeating certain words
- Being more or less sensitive to sensory input like light and noise than other people
Even though people with ADS have several challenges, they also have many strengths, such as;
- Excelling in music and mathematics, among other areas,
- Being strong visual learners, and
- Remembering information for long periods of time.
Diagnosis – How do you diagnose it?
Early diagnosis of autism can make a huge impact on a child’s life. Despite the fact that there is no specific lab test done to diagnose this disorder, a doctor can observe your child’s behaviour. A check-up with a paediatrician or an early childhood health care provider, are recommended for every child.
Some of the early indications that are observed during evaluation are:
- No response to name
- No social responsiveness
- Excessive lining up of objects
- No babbling or pointing by the time a baby is a year old
Treatment – How do you treat it?
There is no uniform treatment for ASD as it affects people differently. The treatment options available include:
- Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA): This is used to help a child with autism learn positive behaviours and reduce negative ones.
- Occupational Therapy: This therapy is done to help children with autism get better at everyday activities like tying shoe laces, holding a fork and getting dressed, among others.
- Speech Therapy: It is meant to help the child with speaking as communicating will, in turn, help the child to interact with others.
- Relationship Development Intervention (RDI): It aims at teaching children to think flexibly and engage in social relationships with others; starting with their parents and other family members.
- Play Therapy: This therapy can improve a child’s social and emotional, language and communication skills as well as help them think differently.
- Through play therapy, children with autism can also expand how they play with toys and how they relate with others. Floortime is one common method of lay therapy that involves a teacher or therapist getting on the floor on the child’s terms and playing with the child and in the process adding something to the game.
- Integrated Play Groups (IPG): This involves combining children with and those without autism to play together enabling those with ASD to learn how to play from their peers.
Prevention – How do you prevent it?
As the exact cause of autism is not known, genes are believed to play a huge role in whether a child is born with the disorder or not. Since there is nothing specific that can be done to prevent your child from being born with autism, you can reduce the risk of that happening by doing the following:
- Eating a well-balanced diet with more vegetables and fruits.
- Exercising to remain physically active even during pregnancy. You may have to talk to your doctor or a fitness instructor about what exercises to do when pregnant.
- Take vitamins and supplements recommended by your doctor.
- Talk to your doctor before taking any drugs when you’re pregnant.
- Get vaccinated against rubella (also known as German measles) before getting pregnant to prevent rubella-associated autism.
- Do not take alcohol when pregnant.
- Get treated for any existing health conditions.