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Autism is a complex developmental disorder that typically appears during the first three years of life.
Autism is one type of Autism Spectrum Disorder (or ASD). There are three different types of ASDs:
- Autistic disorder
- Asperger Syndrome
- Pervasive Developmental Disorder — Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)
ASDs are “spectrum disorders.” That means ASDs affect each person in different ways, and can range from very mild to severe. People with ASDs share some similar symptoms, such as problems issues with social interaction. But there are differences in when the symptoms start, how severe they are, and the exact nature of the symptoms. ASDs can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges (Center for Disease Control & Prevention) Individuals with ASDs often exhibit impairments in the following major areas:
- social interaction
- interests and activities
- symbolic or imaginative play
However, clinicians who routinely treat individuals with ASD also document the following:
- immune dysregulation, including allergies and food sensitivities
- gastrointestinal dysfunction
- metabolic impairment
- sensory integration deficits
- seizure disorder
Therefore, in addition to the typical social, linguistic, and behavioral symptoms of ASDs, it is now widely acknowledged that individuals diagnosed with ASD often suffer from co-morbid medical problems. Some suffer, for example, from seizures. There is also a growing body of sound scientific research which shows that many individuals with ASD suffer from gastrointestinal (GI), sleep, and metabolic disorders. Sadly, because of the communication difficulties typical in ASD, many individuals with ASD who suffer from co-morbid medical conditions are unable to describe their pain and symptoms or to ask for help. It is no surprise, then, that many clinicians and researchers report that when medical care is provided for GI disorders and other ailments, there is a corresponding reduction in behavioral problems; this leads some professionals to hypothesize that at least some of the behavioral problems seen in ASD may, in fact, be the responses to the pain and discomfort the individuals with ASD are experiencing from their medical issues, exacerbated by their frustration in their inability to convey that pain to others. The degree to which behavioral problems issues (need to be sensitive) in ASD may reflect medical issues and physical discomfort is clearly an area that merits clinical and research attention and that speaks to the need for an integrated behavioral and biomedical treatment approach.
Etiology of ASD
It is likely that many causal factors leading to an ASD diagnosis exist, and that many different factors – genetic, biological, and environmental – play a role in a child being more likely to have ASD (Center for Disease Control & Prevention).
Most clinicians and researchers agree that genetics are a principal risk factor for ASD (National Institue of Mental Health). Most experts also agree that environmental factors – both prenatal and postnatal – are critical in the development of ASD. Taking the drug thalidomide during pregnancy, for example, has been linked with a higher risk of ASD (Center for Disease Control & Prevention). And current research is examining – and in many cases substantiating – the role of postnatal environmental factors, such as exposure to heavy metals, drugs, infections and viruses, and other toxins, as well as the role of dietary factors, including food allergies and deficiencies or excesses of nutrients, in the development of ASDs.
Medical researchers are exploring different explanations for the various forms of autism. Although a single specific cause of autism in is not known, current research links autism to biological or neurological differences in the brain. In many families there appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities which suggests there is a genetic basis to the disorder although at this time no gene has been directly linked to autism. Autism is NOT a mental illness, children with autism are NOT unruly kids who chose not to behave, autism is NOT caused by bad parenting, furthermore, no known psychological factors in the development of the child have been shown to cause autism (Source: The Swindells Resource Center for Children and Families). Another resource for early identification is the Help Autism Now Society (HANS).
Prevalence of ASD
The statistics are shocking: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as an “urgent public health concern” that affects approximately 1% of the children in the U.S. − on average one in every 110 children. These numbers mean that more children are affected by ASD than childhood cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined. And studies have shown that boys are three to four times more likely to have ASD, meaning that approximately one in 70 boys is likely to be affected (Center for Disease Control & Prevention).
As recently as 2000-2002, the prevalence rate for ASD was estimated at one in every 150 children, so the increase in reported cases is dramatic. While some of the reported increase may be due to more awareness and better diagnosis, many experts believe that the actual prevalence is also increasing and that the reasons for the increase need to receive immediate and significant research attention.