Student Connections

April is Autism Awareness Month

By Janice K. Wright (aka JK Wrights 2U), student, Center for Distance Learning

April 25, 2011

(Information based on literature from the National Institutes of Health)

It’s Autism Awareness Month and an excellent time to learn more about this condition, which is increasing in our population as a public health concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. People with ASDs handle information in their brain differently than other people.”

According to the Easter Seals' Living with Autism study, “Autism Spectrum Disorders affect nearly one in 150 children, and present an evolving set of educational, health and financial challenges for their families.” The disability can range from mild to severe, which in turn determines the overall needs of the patient. The exact number of children with autism is not known. A report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that autism and related disorders are more common than previously thought. It is unclear whether this is due to an increasing rate of the illness or an increased ability to diagnose the illness.

A developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life, autism affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills. It is a physical condition linked to abnormal biology and chemistry in the brain. The exact causes of these abnormalities remain unknown, but this is a very active area of research.

Some doctors believe the increased incidence in autism is due to newer definitions of autism. The term "autism" now includes a wider spectrum of children. For example, a child who is diagnosed with high-functioning autism today may have been thought to simply be odd or strange 30 years ago.

Symptoms

Most parents of autistic children suspect that something is wrong by the time the child is 18 months old and seek help by the time the child is age 2. Children with autism typically have difficulties in social interactions, verbal and nonverbal communication, and pretend play.

Some children with autism appear normal before age 1 or 2 and then suddenly "regress" and lose language or social skills they had previously gained. This is called the regressive type of autism.

People with autism may be overly sensitive in sight, hearing, touch, smell or taste (for example, they may refuse to wear "itchy" clothes and become distressed if they are forced to wear the clothes), have unusual distress when routines are changed, perform repeated body movements, and/or show unusual attachments to objects.

Signs and Tests

All children should have routine developmental exams done by their pediatrician. Further testing may be needed if the doctor or parents are concerned.

A health-care provider experienced in diagnosing and treating autism is usually needed to make the actual diagnosis. Because there is no biological test for autism, the diagnosis will often be based on very specific criteria from a book called the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV.” An evaluation of autism will often include a complete physical and nervous system (neurologic) examination.

Autism includes a broad spectrum of symptoms. Therefore, a single, brief evaluation cannot predict a child's true abilities. Ideally, a team of different specialists will evaluate the child. They might evaluate: communication, language, motor skills, speech, success at school, and/or thinking abilities.

Sometimes people are reluctant to have a child diagnosed because of concerns about labeling the child. However, without a diagnosis the child may not get the necessary treatment and services.

Treatment

An early, intensive, appropriate treatment program will greatly improve the outlook for most young children with autism. Most programs will build on the interests of the child in a highly structured schedule of constructive activities.

Treatment is most successful when it is geared toward the child's particular needs. An experienced specialist or team should design the program for the individual child.

Expectations

Autism remains a challenging condition for children and their families, but the outlook today is much better than it was a generation ago. At that time, most people with autism were placed in institutions.

Today, with the right therapy, many of the symptoms of autism can be improved, though most people will have some symptoms throughout their lives. Most people with autism are able to live with their families or in the community.

Parents usually suspect that there is a developmental problem long before a diagnosis is made. Call a health-care provider with any concerns about autism or if a child is not developing normally.

Awareness must be brought to the attention of the community to ensure that services and resources will be accessible to these patients throughout their lives. In terms of longevity, this disease can have a detrimental impact on society as these children will one day become adults and will need to have the continued support and resources needed to contend with their basic survival and needs.

There are many places that dedicate themselves to rendering special accommodations for these individuals. According to the Easter Seals' Living with Autism study, “Families should devise a comprehensive life care plan that encompasses basic needs and strategies for achieving the best short and long-term quality of life in every area—food, clothing, shelter, health, finances, family, life, entertainment, employment, retirement and more.”