According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), as many as 1 in 160 children around the world have autism. Many researchers suggest that this number is modest, at best, with far more children with autism outside the radar. Cases are on the rise worldwide because of the increased awareness on the part of parents and caregivers as well as changes in diagnosis. Thus, autism is more common than previously thought. Some famous people with autism include Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla.
What Is Autism?
Autism or more correctly, Autism Spectrum Disorder refers to different conditions with impairments of varying degrees to social skills, behaviour and communication. Autism is not a single disorder but a collection of closely related disorders. These disorders are also known as pervasive developmental disorders (an umbrella group that also contains Asperger’s syndrome).
Children with autism are noted to have a very narrow range of interest which are oddly specific and unique. These interests are oft-repeated and carried on for long hours every day and they may last till their teenage years, sometimes even longer. Children with autism also have language and communication challenges, as well as with handling reciprocal social interactions like at play with other children. Autism effectively impairs the affected child’s ability to fully function in society and their process of learning, thinking and solving problems differs a little or greatly to those of other children.
What Causes Autism?
A particular cause of autism has so far not been identified. Several factors are noted to increases the chances of developing autism which are:
· Genetic factor: older parental age, a sibling with autism for example.
· Environmental factor: exposure to pollution, some industrial raw materials or infections while the mother is pregnant).
When these factors are present, the possibility of developing autism is heightened. Children with very low birth weight, a sibling with autism and a genetic condition such as Down’s syndrome are at a higher risk of developing autism. Autism is much more common in boys than in girls. Claims about autism being caused by vaccines have been refuted by research.
How Can A Child with Autism Be Identified?
Specific signs and symptoms of autism vary within the spectrum. There are many subtypes of autism with distinct sets of characteristics. Children may exhibit different signs and behavioural patterns which may be difficult for parents to pinpoint. Symptoms may also be mild or severe when present. There are no medical tests to diagnose autism. However, a medical professional (preferably a paediatrician, a child psychologist or a psychiatrist) will be able to pick up these symptoms after careful observation. Autism is often noted before age 5 (usually picked up at age 2 but may be possible earlier) and may persist into the teenage years and consequently adulthood.
A child with autism may:
· Avoid eye and physical contact
· Prefer to be alone and seem detached
· Very few smiles and words
· Have trouble adapting to a new routine of environment
· Delays with learning how to speak
· Repeat a particular action over and over
· Repeat particular words and phrases over and over
· Lack of interest in other people or animals
· Seem to have impaired hearing
· Have difficulty understanding gestures, reactions, non-verbal cues
· Stay out of view
· Be very restless or uncooperative
· Be unable to function alone, needing help caring for himself or herself
· Repeat words over and over
· Have difficulty understanding the emotions of others
· Loss of previously learned skills
· Have trouble relating with other people
· Have intellectual challenges
· Have other health issues such as epilepsy, anxiety, depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Children who do not have autism may show some of these signs at some point, which is why professional evaluation is imperative.
The Way Forward
So far, there is no known cure for autism. As such, treatment is proffered by educating parents and caregivers on how best to circumvent the problems autistic children may have. These children require help with developing their social and communication skills to a considerable level so that they may live a quality life. They also need extra parental input to access education and healthcare.
Therapy is also available to improve the child’s functioning, with remarkable success noted when started early. Medications may be used in some cases to treat some symptoms associated with autism.