Patient Education

What Is Autism?

Autism is a complex neurobehavioral disorder that includes impairments in social interaction and developmental language and communication skills combined with rigid, repetitive behaviors. The disorder covers a large spectrum of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment. It ranges in severity from a handicap that somewhat limits an otherwise normal life to a devastating disability that may require institutional care.

Children with autism have trouble communicating. They have trouble understanding what other people think and feel. This makes it very hard for them to express themselves either with words or through gestures, facial expressions, and touch.

A child with autism who is very sensitive may be greatly troubled (sometimes even pained) by sounds, touches, smells, or sights that seem normal to others.

Children who are autistic may have repetitive, stereotyped body movements such as rocking, pacing, or hand flapping. They may have unusual responses to people, attachments to objects, resistance to change in their routines, or aggressive or self-injurious behavior. At times they may seem not to notice people, objects, or activities in their surroundings. Some children with autism may also develop seizures. And in some cases, those seizures may not occur until adolescence.

Many people with autism are cognitively impaired to some degree. In contrast to more typical cognitive impairment, which is characterized by relatively even delays in all areas of development, people with autism show uneven skill development. They may have problems in certain areas, especially the ability to communicate and relate to others. But they may have unusually developed skills in other areas, such as drawing, creating music, solving math problems, or memorizing facts. For this reason, they may test higher (perhaps even in the average or above-average range) on nonverbal intelligence tests.

Autism typically appears during the first three years of life. Some children show signs from birth. Others seem to develop normally at first, only to slip suddenly into symptoms when they are 18 to 36 months old. However, it is now recognized that some individuals may not show symptoms of a communication disorder until the demands of the environment exceed their capabilities. Autism is four times more common in boys than in girls. It knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries. Family income, lifestyle, or educational levels do not affect a child's chance of being autistic.

If your child has autism, you know how this developmental disorder can disrupt every part of your life -- your relationships, physical and emotional health, and career aspirations. But there is hope and help. Consider the following strategies as you tackle the special challenges and receive the unique joys of parenting a child with autism.

Learn All You Can About Autism

You can't "catch" autism. You either have it or you don't. And today, about one in 68 children have been diagnosed with autism or an autism spectrum disorder (also called ASD), which encompasses several related disorders, such as Asperger's syndrome. They are all complex developmental disabilities that affect the development of a child's social skills, communication skills, and behavior.

Autism is usually detected during a child's formative years, so experts know that early diagnosis, intervention, and treatment are the keys to helping young children with autism develop to their full potential. The primary goal of autism treatment is to improve the overall ability of the child to function

Get a Strong Social Network

Gathering your support network involves knowing ahead of time whom you can call for different types of support, even for emergencies, including:

Emotional: A close friend or family member who is a confidant and whom you trust with your most personal feelings and concerns

Social: A friend or colleague you enjoy being with and who helps you survive disappointments and shares your victories

Informational: Your child's doctor, teachers, therapists, or other caregivers you can ask for advice on major decisions regarding his or her treatment

Review the Recommended Autism Treatment Options

Child development experts agree that a child with autism should receive treatment as soon after diagnosis as possible. There is no cure for autism, but early intervention using skills training and behavior modification techniques can yield good results. This type of educational and behavioral treatment tackles autism symptoms (impaired social interaction, communication problems, and repetitive behaviors) and can boost an autistic child's chances of being able to go to school and participate in normal activities.

Learn More About Behavioral Training

Behavioral training teaches people of all ages with autism how to communicate appropriately. This type of training can reduce behavior problems and improve adaptation skills.

Both behavioral training and behavioral management use positive reinforcement to improve behavior. These therapies also use social skills training to improve communication. The specific program should be chosen according to the child's needs. As an example, a high-functioning child with autism may be enrolled in mainstream classrooms and child care facilities. The behaviors of other normally developing children can provide examples for the child with autism to follow. However, other children with autism are overly stimulated in a regular classroom and work best in smaller, highly structured environments.

Assess Your Child's Need for Medication

While there is no medication for autism, there are drugs for specific symptoms that kids with autism might display. As an example, the FDA approved Risperdal in 2006 for the treatment of irritability in children and teens with autism. Short attention spans can sometimes be improved with stimulant drugs that are used to treat ADD or ADHD. Children with autism who have anxiety, depression, or OCD behaviors can often be treated with anti-depressants.

Drugs have a limited role in improving the symptoms of autism. However, some may help prevent self-injury and other behaviors that are causing difficulty. Medicines may also take a child with autism to a functional level at which they can benefit from other treatments.

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