Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a general term for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized by difficulties in both verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction and repetitive behaviors. The level in which a child displays these characteristics varies by degree, but every child affected by ASD will demonstrate symptoms in these three categories.
According to the CDC, one in 28 American children is diagnosed with a varying degree of ASD, an exponential increase from previous years. It is important to note that careful research proves this increase is partially explained by improved diagnosis and awareness. ASD is also four-to-five times more common in boys than girls.
In recent years, scientists have identified a number of rare genetic changes, also referred to as mutations, associated with autism, but there are very few that are capable of causing autism alone. Most cases of ASD appear to be the result of a combination of genetic changes along with external or “environmental” factors that may influence the child’s early brain development such as oxygen deprivation to the child during birth. A woman can reduce her risk of having a child born with ASD by taking prenatal vitamins containing folic acid and/or eating a diet rich in folic acid during the months before and after conception. Both mothers and fathers over the age of 40 at the time of conception are at a much higher risk of having a child born with autism, and maternal illness during pregnancy may contribute to added risk. It is important to note that there is no scientific evidence linking vaccinations to a child’s risk for ASD.
On average, the most obvious signs of autism emerge between 2 and 3 years of age. As a parent, it is important that you educate yourself on what’s “normal” and what isn’t when it comes to child development. As your child grows, keep an eye out for key social, cognitive and emotional milestones as a way to spot potential problems early on. Please keep in mind that every child develops at a different pace, so don’t panic if your child is a little late to talk or walk. If your child isn’t meeting the typical milestones for his or her age, or you suspect there is a problem, share your concerns with your child’s pediatrician. Any loss of speech, babbling, gestures or social skills should be taken very seriously, as regression is a major red flag for autism.
Lastly, trust your instincts. You know your child better than anyone else. If your gut is telling you something is wrong, take a proactive approach in addressing your concerns with your child’s pediatrician. After the initial visit, schedule a follow-up appointment within six weeks to discuss progress or regression, seek a second opinion or ask for a referral to a child development specialist.
Early intervention, ideally by the age of 18 months, with proven behavioral therapies can greatly improve outcomes. Applied Behavior Analysis and Pivotal Response Training are two effective therapies used to treat young children with ASD. Older children, teens and adults with ASD may better benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a goal-based, structured approach that targets behavioral characteristics in addition to other conditions such as depression, anxiety and/or panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If you believe that your child may be demonstrating symptoms of ASD, contact your pediatrician or family physician immediately. If you do not have a physician, please call 317.880.8687.
Nydia Nunez-Estrada, M.D.
Eskenazi Health Center North Arlington