The world of autism…a closer look

Step into the shoes of a child with autism. You’ll see a world of isolation. You’ll see a world that seems unreachable. You’ll see a world only a child with autism knows.

“Autism is a neuropsychiatric condition affecting children characterized by delays in speech and language development, variable intellectual ability and difficulty with socialization. There are many conditions that can manifest as autism, hence it does not represent a single disorder,” says Dr. Sangeeta Chakravorty, MD, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Autism is among a group of neurodevelopment disorders referred to as autism spectrum disorder or ASD. Classic autism is the most severe form of ASD. Milder forms of ASD include Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder.

Experts estimate that three to six children out of every 1,000 will have ASD. Males are four times more likely to have ASD than females.

“As yet, the causes of autism or other forms of ASD are unknown. Some genetic and neurological disorders are associated with autism. There are some twin studies to show that a genetic component exists,” Dr. Chakravorty says.

Research shows that autism tends to run in families so scientists think it’s inherited. Some people argue that the childhood vaccine, measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR causes autism. But studies have not shown this to be true. It’s important to make sure that children get all recommended vaccines to prevent many serious diseases that can cause harm or even death. “People are born with autism. The diagnosis may be made in later life but it does not develop in later life,” says Dr. Chakravorty.

The most common sign of autism is impaired social interaction. Parents may start to see symptoms as early as infancy. A baby with autism may be unresponsive to people or focus intently on one item for long periods of time. A child with autism or ASD may appear to develop normally, but withdraw from the world and become socially indifferent. Very early signs of autism that require evaluation by an expert include:

• No babbling or pointing by age 1
• Not saying single words by 16 months or two-word phrases by age 2
• No response to own name
• Poor eye contact
• Excessive lining up of toys or objects
• No smiling or social responsiveness.

Later indicators include:

• Impaired ability to make friends with peers
• Impaired ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others
• Absence or impairment of imaginative and social play
• Stereotyped, repetitive or unusual use of language
• Preoccupation with certain objects or subjects
• Repetitive movement such as rocking back and forth
• Referring to self by name rather than “I” or “me”
• Inflexible need to follow specific routines or rituals.

Physicians use various evaluation methods to determine if a child has autism. Some screening methods rely solely on parent observations, while others rely on a combination of parent and doctor observations. If autistic behavior is suspected, more comprehensive testing will follow.

According to Dr. Chakravorty, “Appropriate diagnosis and treatment can improve many aspects of autism. Once the child learns to communicate, many of the other behaviors subside and the child can learn and develop many skills. Treatment improves many of the physical symptoms that families find challenging and improves the quality of life for the child and his or her family.”

Treatment for autism typically involves special behavioral training. This behavioral training rewards good behavior to teach children how to interact socially and become more self sufficient as they grow older.

“Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh has a very renowned center for autism diagnosis and treatment within the Division of Child Development. It is one of 15 centers in the country identified as a center of excellence by the Autism Treatment Network. Skilled physicians, researchers, psychologists and ancillary therapists are engaged in providing a wide variety of services to support the families and children who have this disorder,” Dr. Chakravorty says.

Most people with autism will always have some trouble relating to others. But early diagnosis and treatment have helped more and more people with autism to reach their full potential!

Mona Chabra is a freelance writer from Sewickley.