A child with ASD.

Considering around 1 in 54 children have autism, we must all become more informed.

Defined as a neurodevelopmental disorder, that affects social and communication interactions as well as restricted interests and repetitive behaviors, autism is a complex disorder. Each individual is unique, just like professor Stephen M. Shore said, “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism.”

Whether you believe your child is showing signs of autism, someone you love has been recently diagnosed, or you are simply interested in learning more, this guide is for you.

 

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What Is ASD?

Autism is known as a spectrum disorder, ranging from level 1 to 3. This developmental disorder refers to a range of conditions characterized by issues with communication (speech and nonverbal), repetitive behaviors, and social skills.

Although those with autism will share common symptoms, just like everyone else, no two individuals are the same. Levels 1-3 highlight the severity of impairment, as well as the level of support needed. While there is often an assumption that ASD is linear, associating level 1 with low-functioning ASD and level 3 with high-functioning ASD, autism is much more complex. For example, a common assumption is that those who are nonverbal have low-functioning autism. When in fact, there many nonverbal individuals with autism who display average or above-average intelligence.

In that sense, there isn’t one type of autism, but many subtypes. These include Asperger’s Syndrome and Kanner’s Syndrome. Symptoms tend to overlap across each subtype, varying in degree and onset. These behavioral symptoms include:

  • Little to no eye contact
  • Delayed speech
  • Poor motor skills
  • Repetitive mannerisms or routines
  • Sensory issues (i.e. high sensitivity to light)
  • Trouble holding a conversation

 

Learn More: What To Do If You Think You Or A Loved One Might Have Autism
 

Is Autism a Developmental Disability?

Yes, autism is a developmental disability that causes significant communication, social, and behavioral challenges.

It’s important to stress the fact that autism is a developmental disability and not a learning disability. Although special education services are often available to children, and ASD can affect learning, it is not a learning disability — and the strategies can be very different. However, it is important to note that autism can overlap with various learning disabilities, such as dyslexia.

Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is considered a “developmental” disorder because symptoms typically surface in the first two years of life. That is why it’s important that you recognize symptoms as soon as possible. Research shows that early intervention can lead to positive outcomes later in life. In some children, ASD can be detected as early as 14 months. However, the average age of diagnosis is 4 years.

When children are young (2 or 3 years of age), their brain is more “plastic” than older aged children. This means the brain’s neural networks have a greater ability to change. Due to this plasticity, treatments tend to have a greater impact long-term. Some of the early intervention programs available include physical therapy, family training, speech therapy, nutrition services, and hearing impairment services.

 

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What Causes Autism Spectrum Disorder?

There is no single cause of autism spectrum disorder. However, researchers believe that ASD is caused by brain structure or function abnormalities. When comparing the brains of children with and without autism, there are differences in the shape and structure of the brain. Based on the complexity of ASD, genetic and environmental variables are believed to play a role.

For example, for some children, autism is associated with a genetic disorder, such as Rett syndrome. For other children, genetic mutations may increase their risk. From the potential influence of viral infections to maternal obesity, many theories exist. Although the exact causes are not fully understood, one thing is certain — the rate of children diagnosed with autism is rising. It’s not clear whether this is due to better detection and reporting or if there is a true increase in cases.

In that sense, we must look at possible environmental factors. One theory is exposure to air pollution or certain pesticides during pregnancy. This has been documented in a number of studies, including a 2011 paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives. It was found that children of mothers who lived near a freeway (and traffic-related pollution) during their trimester, were twice as likely to develop ASD.

While autism affects all ethnicities and races, there are clear risk factors, including:

  • Gender — Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism compared to girls.
  • Family history — If you have one child with autism, there’s a greater chance that your other children may have autism as well.
  • Preterm babies — Babies born before 26 weeks may showcase a greater risk.
  • Age of parents — While more research is needed, there may be a link between children with autism and older parents.
  • Other disorders — Children who have certain medical conditions have a higher than normal risk of developing autism-like symptoms. For example, fragile X syndrome or tuberous sclerosis.

Since there is no one definitive cause, it’s important for women to adjust variables they can control. For example, women are less likely to have a child with autism if they take a daily prenatal vitamin during the three months before and the first month following birth. Research has also shown that folic acid during early pregnancy may help reduce the risk of ASD among women exposed to air pollution and pesticides.

Based on the complexity of autism, there is no single medical test that can diagnose it. Multiple tests and evaluations will likely be necessary and one’s symptoms will need to be tracked across time.

If you or your loved one have been recently diagnosed or are searching for a more optimal treatment and education center, Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning in Utah is highly regarded on state, national, international levels. Offering programs for children, adolescents, and adults with autism, the Pingree Center is transforming lives.

Want to learn more? Contact Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning today!