By: Debby Hoffer
Could my child have autism? It’s an alarming question that more and more parents are asking. The startling facts are that autism is on the rise with one child out of every one-hundred and sixty-six children being afflicted with this mysterious condition. The good news is that much is being done to help understand signs of autism, to treat autism and to uncover the cause. Early detection and intervention can actually help autistic children develop more normal patterns of behavior and key medical breakthroughs are finally helping to pinpoint the actual cause of autism.
WHAT IS AUTISM?
Autism is actually a group of different disorders which the medical community refers to as autism spectrum disorders. These autism disorders include some or all of the classic autism symptoms which are generally lumped together under the medical name of autism. Autism disorders include Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder. Studies have shown that autism disorders are directly tied to underdevelopment and abnormalities in the innermost parts of the brain. Recent studies have pointed to environmental and genetic factors as the underlying causes of autism.
WARNING SIGNS OF AUTISM
All parents need to be on the lookout for the warning signs of autism. A child with autism could have a wide range of abnormal behavior. Children with autism generally are socially withdrawn and have difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication. A baby with autism is not likely to respond to simple social cues such as smiling and peek-a-boo. An autistic baby may also focus on one object for an unusual length of time and be ultra sensitive to sound, light and/or touch. Autistic babies may dislike being held or cuddled. Autistic children are prone to repeat the same type of behavior over and over again. In the medical community this is called repetitive behavior. For example, older autistic children may be involved in a constant rocking motion, opening and closing a door over and over, or staring at an object for an unusual length of time. Older autistic children are prone to be obsessed in one area of interest and cannot carry on a two way conversation. Autistic children tend to have mild to severe bowel problems, a lack of emotional empathy and have extreme difficulty relating to other people and difficulty dealing with social situations.
RECENT STUDIES ARE NARROWING THE CAUSE
On Saturday, December 30, 2006 the Kansas City Star posted information regarding two recent studies that are narrowing the cause of autism. One study, also published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, originated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Researchers at the University found that autistic males who have difficulty looking at peoples eyes in photographs had an underdeveloped or smaller amygdala. The amygdala is an almond shaped grey mass that is located in the front part of the brain. It links the cortex which is responsible for conscious thought with the regions of the brain that control emotions. It enables a person to interpret fear related information. The amygdala is also involved in character determination. For example: determining if a person is trustworthy based on past experiences. Researchers realized that autistic males with a small amygdala also had difficulty interpreting emotional facial expressions from a neutral facial expression. Subjects were tested using an eye-tracking device to record where they looked.
In a separate French study also published in December of 2006 in Natures Genetics, researchers found “that a protein encoded in a gene called SHANK3 interacts with other proteins that have a role in brain signaling. Mutations have been found in a small number of individuals with autism.” Researchers and doctors have long supposed that a genetic factor is at play in the cause of autism. This new medical research supports the genetic theory.
Neurotransmitters have also played a role in the cause of autism. Neurotransmitters are chemical substances in the brain that carry messages about touch, taste, smell, sight, thought, and feelings to the brain. A lack of the neurotransmitter serotonin has been believed to cause many of the classic symptoms of autism. Outside sensory information such as sound is not properly relayed back and forth between the brain regions. Sound, touch, taste, smell, etc. can be lost within the brain or not carried properly to the right portion of the brain for an autistic child to assimilate and understand. For example: voicing a basic instruction to “go get your shoes.” For a child to understand the instruction, the sound of the voice needs to be carried by a neurotransmitter to the portion of the brain that can understand and interpret the instruction accurately. Autistic children are believed to not understand such simple instructions due to a neurotransmitter imbalance. This imbalance is also believed to be the cause for abnormal sleeping patterns often exhibited by autistic children.
TREATMENT FOR AUTISM
There is no medically known cure for autism, but there are medications and treatment therapy options. A combination of early detection, medication and treatment therapy has proven to be effective in helping autistic children develop more normal patterns of behavior. Educators and behavioral specialists conduct therapy sessions where a child is intensely trained in social and communication skills. A form of therapy called applied behavior analysis is the gold standard in autistic treatment. It is expensive and very rigorous, with a forty hour week of one-on-one training. One Mother has written a book, called “The Autism Sourcebook” on how her son actually recovered from autism through this form of therapy. A link to that book is given below.
Doctors will often prescribe anti-depressant medications to enable an increase in the neurotransmitter serotonin. This medication can often help autistic children better handle the sensory overload that could be going on in their brain. It also helps control symptoms such as anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorders. Anti-psychotic drugs are used to treat severe autistic behaviors. Drugs are available to help control seizures and stimulant drugs used to treat ADD can help control hyperactivity. A more restricted diet can help control bowel problems and has been known to help autistic patients exhibit more normal patterns of behavior.
There are many natural or experimental therapies available to treat autism. Parents should research such options carefully and be sure to discuss all options with a qualified specialist.
CHILDREN GROWING INTO ADULTS WITH AUTISM
Perhaps the biggest fear that parents of autistic children face is what to do when their child grows up. Who is going to help care for him and what kind of life can they have? The good news is that autism improves with treatment and age. Also, there are many resources available to help parents and older children deal with autism. An example of resources now available is a halfway house for autistic adults in New Milford, New Jersey. It is a home that helps autistic adults manage their condition and at the same time liberates them into a more independent role. To find out more information regarding your state autism resources, be sure to check out the link below.
Having a child with autism is not easy for any parent to face. It’s a difficult condition that is too much a reality for many families. Parents who face an autistic condition head-on, with accurate information, proven therapies, and treatments have the opportunity to better integrate their child into society
. More resources are now dedicated to study the cause of autism and for autistic treatments. Hopefully researchers will find more answers and shed more light on the causes of this difficult condition. Until then, there’s research, treatment, medication, hope and above all, love.
State Resources available for child and youth with disabilities including autism.
National Institute of Health more facts on Autism.
How My Child Recovered from Autism. A Mother’s story regarding the ABA treatment therapy option.