Autism Spectrum Disorder

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What is autism spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a specific set of behavioural and developmental problems and challenges. ASD affects a child’s communication, social, and play skills.

The word “spectrum” in ASD means that every child is unique and has his own combination of characteristics. These combine to give him a distinct social communication and behaviour profile. As your child grows and develops, the expression of these challenges will change. Usually a person with ASD has social and/or behavioural differences for his entire life.

Characteristics of ASD

These are some of the characteristics of ASD.

  • Shows little response when you call his name, especially if he is in preschool.
  • May not respond when other people try to talk or play with him.
  • Shows little interest in getting attention from others.
  • Does not point with his index finger to show what he is interested in.
  • Shows a lack of interest in toys or plays with toys in an unusual way.
  • May seem moody, irritable, or very passive.
  • May suddenly change from being very passive to very irritable in a short period of time.
  • May have difficulty using eye gaze appropriately in social situations.

Prevalence of ASD

ASD is the most common developmental condition. One in 100 people have ASD. Four out of five people with ASD are male. ASD affects people from all parts of the world. It affects people of every social economic background and race.

Possible causes of ASD

There are no specific known causes of ASD. However, current studies suggest that ASD may be related to differences in how the brain develops before birth and during the first few years of life.

In some families, there seems to be a pattern of ASD in more than one member of the family. This suggests there is a genetic basis to ASD. At this time, some specific genes have been directly linked to ASD. In most people, ASD is most likely the result of a complex interaction of several genes. These genes vary a lot among affected families. Research in this area is ongoing.

We know that the brain of a child with ASD develops differently from conception and that:

  • ASD is not a mental illness.
  • children with ASD are not unruly kids who choose to misbehave.
  • bad parenting does not cause ASD.

What to do if you think your child has ASD

If you suspect your child might have ASD, book an appointment with the family doctor. He may refer your child to a child psychologist who specializes in the diagnosis of ASD.

Diagnosis of ASD

Diagnosing a child with ASD is complex. We cannot tell, just by looking, if a child has ASD. The characteristics of ASD can change over time as your child develops.

Best practices for determining whether a child has ASD include:

  • observing the child
  • talking to the parents
  • using standardized assessment tools to document development and behaviour

There are no laboratory tests for diagnosing ASD. However, some lab tests may be helpful to detect medical problems such as low iron, causing anemia. Some children may develop seizures and need an EEG to document brain electrical activity before starting seizure treatment.

Making a diagnosis may be difficult for a doctor who does not have experience working with children with ASD. The doctor needs to be able to tell the difference between ASD and other conditions. So it is best if the doctor, along with a team of specially trained health care workers, makes a diagnosis for your child.

Treating ASD

There is no medical cure for ASD. However, because we understand the brain and ASD so much better now, we may be able to influence how the brain develops and works. Slowly we are finding ways to help people deal with different characteristics of ASD. With the right treatment, some behaviour can be changed. But most children and adults with ASD will have some characteristics of ASD for the rest of their lives. Some may be helped with medicines that treat low iron levels. Other medicines may reduce symptoms such as anxiety, which may develop at any age.

Children with ASD respond well to highly structured, specialized education programs that meet the specific needs of the child. They work best one-on-one or in a small group setting.

An effective program may include:

  • behavioural teaching
  • communication therapy
  • training in social skills development
  • sensory motor therapy

An effective program should be flexible. The program should constantly change over time. It should teach the social communication skills needed at every stage of development. It should be supervised by someone who has a strong understanding of ASD and its treatment.

An effective program offers training and support for parents, other caregivers, and teachers. It can be difficult for the family, classroom teacher, or other caregivers to help the child with ASD effectively without some training.

Where to go from here: Resources for ASD

For a listing of resources to support families, see the Resources for ASD section in the Autism Spectrum Disorder resource centre.

Depending upon where you live, you may need to develop your own list of available resources.

Your local chapter of Autism Ontario is a great starting place to find resources in your community.

Janice Mulligan MSW, RSW
Wendy Roberts MD, FRCPC
Lee Steel