Spectrum Disorders Becoming More Prevalent
to the Centers for Disease Control, one child in 166 in the United States has
some form of autism. Ten years ago, that figure was estimated to be one in
2,500. While it is difficult to know for certain whether the incidence of
autism is increasing as dramatically as it appears to be, or whether we are
simply better trained to recognize it, most experts agree that the rising
figures can be attributed to a combination of both factors.
Defining Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
of a spectrum of autism disorders is a fairly recent development even though we
have known for some time that people who share the diagnosis of autism can vary
significantly in their abilities to function. Individuals who are severely
autistic have little or no ability to communicate. If they are able to speak,
they typically talk about themselves in the third person. Many are
developmentally disabled and some suffer seizures. At the other end of the
spectrum are highly functioning individuals, who have normal to above average
IQs. They often go on to achieve well in professions that require only limited
personal interaction; some are quite gifted in their chosen fields.
umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), in addition to Autistic Disorder,
are associated disorders characterized by some but not all of the symptoms of
autism, including Asperger’s Disorder, Rett’s Syndrome, Childhood
Disintegrative Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise
Specified (PDD NOS).
Common Symptoms of Autism
There are a
number of common features of autism that appear to greater or lesser degrees in
most people with ASD. One aspect may be
more pronounced than others, depending on the individual.
ability to communicate, including verbal communication and the ability to take
visual cues from another person.
to engage in social interaction; not relating well to others. Preferring not to
behavior, either through gestures or obsession with objects.
areas of interest, usually in solitary activities, such as coin collecting or
Why autism occurs
no known causes of autism. There are, however, several hypotheses related to
diet (gluten, casein), the environment (pollution), and childhood vaccinations.
At this point in time these are purely speculations, as we do not have
sufficient data indicating any one cause. We do know that autism tends to run
in families and that if you have one child with autism, your odds of having a
second child with autism are significantly higher than the general population.
Early diagnosis is critical
parents of children with autism grow suspicious that something is wrong early
in their child’s development. Parents picking up on differences in their child
can help facilitate a diagnosis as early as 18 months of age. Early evaluation
and treatment are crucial to a child with autism; if a child reaches age five
or six before deficits are diagnosed and addressed, the chances for a good
outcome are diminished dramatically.
to look for include: lack of verbal and non-verbal communication, an aversion
to being touched, repetitive behavior, and an inability to filter stimuli. Babies
with autism may not smile, or cry, or point at things. As they grow up and
begin to attend school, children with autism sometimes can become aggressive
toward other kids out of frustration and in response to being ostracized.
also highly correlated with other disorders, such as attention
deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD),
and Tourette’s Disorder. It’s not at all uncommon in treating a patient with
AD/HD or anxiety or depression to discover that the child also has an autism
Treatment for autism
There is no
cure for autism but there are a number of approaches to treatment. It is
important to place a child with autism in a special and supportive environment
as quickly as possible. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is one of the effective
approaches to help a child with autism learn in small increments. It involves
intensive one-to-one teaching, and breaking down learning into manageable
steps. Children with autism are easily
over-stimulated. They cannot filter out the sounds and visual distraction of
the ordinary classroom and in such a setting they are overwhelmed. However,
individual teaching time in a small setting, where the child is not the target
of bullying, can have a significant impact on early development.
with autism have self-esteem problems and often struggle with depression and
anxiety. Autism is a disorder that isolates children and they may act out
aggressively. Parents need to ensure that these children are in environments
that nurture them and help them develop social skills, even if the child is
resistant and does not want increased social contact. Over time, this kind of interaction can help
these kids feel less anxious.
Autism is a
life-long problem. People do struggle with it, and right now we have no cure.
But the earlier autism is diagnosed and addressed, the better a child’s chances
are for living a more normal life.
Dr. Duplan is a board-certified psychiatrist on staff
in the Adolescent Behavioral Services Unit at Cayuga Medical Center. He did his
fellowship training in child and adolescent psychiatry at New York Presbyterian
Hospital—Weill Medical College of Cornell University.