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Autistic Spectrum Disorders

What are autistic spectrum disorders?

A child with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) does not develop normally in several ways, such as having problems communicating and getting along with others. ASDs are also called pervasive developmental disorders.

There are different kinds of ASDs:

  • Autism: Autism is a disorder in which a child has problems with communicating and getting along with others. They have unusual or repetitive actions and narrowly focused interests.
  • Asperger syndrome: This is a mild form of autism. A child may have good language skills, but have trouble being around others, and have unusual interests and behaviors.
  • Rett syndrome: This is a very rare developmental disorder that affects only girls. Babies develop normally for the first 6 months before symptoms start.
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder: This is a rare disorder in which a child develops normally until about age 3 or 4 and then suddenly starts to show symptoms of autism.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of ASDs is not known.

  • The brain makes chemicals that affect thoughts, emotions, and actions. Without the right balance of these chemicals, there may be problems with the way your child thinks, feels, or acts. A child with this disorder may have too little or too much of some of these chemicals.
  • If a woman is infected with a virus, has diabetes, or does not eat a healthy diet while she is pregnant, it increases the risk that the child will develop an autistic spectrum disorder. Exposure to certain chemicals and medicines during pregnancy may also increase the risk. Low oxygen levels from long labor or premature birth may also increase the risk.
  • ASDs sometimes run in families. There may be certain genes linked to autism. If the father is older than age 40 when the mother gets pregnant, it may increase a child’s risk.
  • Children with one of these disorders may have physical changes in their brain. These changes may mean that some parts of the brain are more active or less active than in other children.
  • Children with other brain problems and genetic syndromes such as fragile X syndrome, are sometimes also autistic.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of ASD vary. No two children with ASD are exactly alike.

Social Skills

Most children with ASD seem to have a lot of trouble learning the give-and-take of dealing with people. They may also have trouble controlling their emotions. This can take the form of crying or verbal outbursts.

Communication Problems

There is a wide range of communication problems. Some children with ASD never talk. Some talk or make noises early in life and then stop. Others are just slow to start and don't start to talk until age 5 to 9. Those who do speak often use language in unusual ways. They also don't always understand tone of voice or nonverbal communication, such as a smile, a wink, or a frown.

Repetitive Behaviors

Children with ASD sometimes repeat movements. Some flap their arms or walk on their toes a lot. They also develop strong habits and routines. They may get very upset at the slightest change in routine.

Other problems

Children with ASD may also have problems with their senses. Many are very sensitive to certain sounds, textures, tastes, and smells.

How is an ASD diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your child's development at each well child visit. Tell your provider about any concerns you have and any behavior that seems unusual. As a parent or caregiver, you are usually the first to notice unusual behaviors in your child. Do not ignore problems, thinking that your child is just a little slow and will "catch up." Early treatment helps reduce symptoms. It increases your child's ability to grow and learn new skills.

Your child's healthcare provider will examine your child and ask about your child's symptoms and your family history of any medical and mental problems. Your child may have tests such as:

  • Blood tests
  • Hearing tests
  • CT, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the brain
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the brain
  • EEG, which measures and records the electrical activity in the brain

Because it can be inherited, your healthcare provider may want to screen your other children for symptoms.

What is the treatment?

There is no one best treatment for all children with ASD. Before you decide on your child's treatment, find out what your options are. Learn as much as you can and make your choice for your child's treatment based on your child's needs.

Usually children are placed in public schools and the school district provides all needed services. These will include working with a speech therapist, occupational therapist, school psychologist, social worker, school nurse, or aide. You may want to visit public schools in your area to see the type of program they offer to special needs children.

A team of professionals will help evaluate your child and put a plan together. You may also ask your healthcare provider to review the plan. Ask and find out all the services that may be available for your child.

Treatment will also include doing activities at home.

How can I help my child?

  • Your child’s therapist can help you learns ways to work with your child at home.
  • Look for your child’s strengths. No one knows what your child may be able to do in time, so don’t set your expectations too low. Encourage your child to try new things.
  • Join a support group. Support groups can help by sharing common concerns and solutions to problems with other families in the same situation. You can find these services through your healthcare provider, schools, therapy programs, and local and national support organizations.
  • See a mental health professional to help you cope with your stress.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-12-17
Last reviewed: 2012-12-17
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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