What is Autism?
Autism is a life-long developmental disorder that affects an individual’s ability to interact with the world around them.
While we have all heard about autism, most of us have only vague ideas of what the diagnosis means. Individuals with autism have difficulties making friends and participating in everyday social interactions. They often have restricted interests and behavioral patterns, and find comfort in routine and repetition.
Since it is a spectrum disorder, autism affects kids in different ways, and no two autistic children are exactly alike. This makes things very confusing for parents who are battling to come to terms with what is best for their child, as signs of autism vary greatly. It may be helpful to devise an autism symptoms checklist to aid in diagnosing the disorder.
A common struggle for parents is the desperate efforts to try and "reach" their kids, as they seem to exist in their own private world within their minds.
How Common is Autism?
Autism was once thought to be a rare disorder affecting as few as 1 in 5,000 people. Recent findings, however, suggest a much higher prevalence rate, estimating that at least 1 out of every 500 children in the U.S. has autism.
This large discrepancy may be due to an increase in awareness about the disorder and more accurate diagnostic criteria. Others believe that autism is a developmental disorder that is on the increase. Most autistic children develop symptoms before 3 years of age, and the disorder tends to affect four times as many boys as girls.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for autism, although treatment options are available to help your kids lead as normal a life as possible.
There are currently no medical tests which can diagnose autism. Signs of autism vary from individual to individual . Diagnosis is usually based on careful observation as well as information provided by parents and other caregivers on the child's behavior, communication, social interaction, and developmental levels.
There are also a number of screening tests or questionnaires which can be performed, including the CARS rating (Childhood Autism Rating Scale) and CHAT (Checklist for Autism in Toddlers).
Diagnosis can be made by pediatricians, psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, or by a multi-disciplinary team, usually utilizing an autism symptoms checklist.
Recognizing the Symptoms of Autism
Children with autism usually display impairments in social, behavioral, and communication skills. Keeping an autism symptoms checklist can help when seeking help from a healthcare professional. Symptoms can include:
- Lack of eye contact, facial expressions, and social gestures
- Failure to develop peer relationships
- Does not seek out social interaction
- Appears not to hear you at times and lacks responsiveness
- Resists cuddling, holding, and physical touch
- Appears unaware of others' emotions
- Retreats into his or her "own world" and prefers to play alone
- Delayed language development or absence of speech
- Inability to start or sustain conversation
- Stereotyped or 'strange' use of language
- "Disney speak" – repeats phrases from frequently watched cartoons or movies
- Language regression - loses previously acquired ability to say certain words or sentences
- Avoids eye contact when speaking
- Repetition of words or phrases, with little understanding of how to make sense of these words or use them in own speech
- Difficulty expressing own needs and often uses gestures rather than words
- Anger, aggression or violent behavior
- Eating disorders (e.g. under or over eating)
- Mood swings
- Restricted and repetitive behavior
- Abnormally intense preoccupation with certain activities or areas of interest
- Obsessive or inappropriate attachment to certain objects
- Inflexible insistence on certain non-functional rituals or routines
- Insists on sameness, and becomes distressed when routines or rituals are changed
- Stereotyped and repetitive movements called "stimming", e.g. hand flapping or rocking
- Preoccupation with parts of objects, such as a fascination with the spinning wheel of a toy car
- May be particularly sensitive to loud sounds, bright lights, or physical touch and textures
What Causes Autism?
There is no known single cause of autism.
It is known that autism is a neurological disorder, and that there are differences in the shape and the structure of the brain of autistic children as opposed to non-autistic children – although this is not always the case.
While it is not known whether autism has a genetic link, the exact genes involved are unclear. Families with one autistic child have 3% - 5% chance of having a second autistic child (this differs to the 0.5% risk of the general population).
Certain ‘triggers’ have been implicated as possible precipitators of the disorder. These could include problems in pregnancy and birth, viral infections, exposure to certain environmental chemicals or pollutants, or even allergies to certain foods (i.e. gluten or dairy products).
There are also suggestions that autism may be caused by a reaction to childhood vaccines, especially those containing high amounts of mercury. Obviously more research is needed in this area.
It is important for parents to note that autism is not a mental illness and is NOT caused by bad parenting or problems in the home.
Help for Autism
While there are many different theories about the best course of treatment for autism, most professionals agree that the earlier treatment begins, the better the chances are that the child will be helped.
While there is a place for prescription medication in certain cases of autism, careful consideration and caution should be taken due to possible side effects.
There are also natural calming treatments for autism, including herbal and homeopathic remedies which can help maintain harmony, health, and systemic balance in the brain and nervous system, without side effects or sedation.
The best results are usually achieved by using a multidisciplinary approach and combining different therapies. It may take some time and experimentation to find the right combination of therapies for the individual.
Approaches to Autism Treatment
The following is merely an overview of some of the treatment approaches. As the signs of autism vary, in addition to different causes and manifestations in people, treatment will differ from person to person and often needs to be tailor-made for the individual.
Educational and Therapeutic Approaches
This includes specialized education as well as physiotherapy, occupational therapy, music therapy, sensory integration, behavior modification, and speech therapy. Depending on the symptoms and the areas of developmental delay, these therapies can be extremely effective and combined into the overall treatment plan.
The earlier they are begun, the better the chances of improvement. It is important to realize that none of these therapies are 'quick fixes', and require perseverance over a long period of time.
There are indications that certain vitamins and mineral supplements may improve functioning in autistic people. While there is some disagreement regarding this amongst medical professionals, many parents have reported marked improvements after a program of nutritional supplements.
There are also a number of clinical studies which strongly support the use of vitamin and mineral supplementation in the treatment of autism, and have demonstrated significant improvement.
As nutrition is such a vital ingredient in brain development, it stands to reason that supplementation may have a positive benefit, although this would vary from individual to individual. Some experts have gone as far as to suggest that certain cases of autism could be as a result of nutritional deficiencies or malabsorption of nutrients from the diet.
This subject is a very complex one and outside the scope of this discussion. However, it is strongly suggested that parents consult a physician, homeopath, or nutritional expert who specializes in using supplements in the treatment of autism, and that this approach be integrated into the intervention program.
There are also suggestions that autistic symptoms can be caused as a result of malabsorption and intolerances to certain foodstuffs, especially dairy products, sugar, and gluten contained in wheat and grain products.
Some parents have reported remarkable changes after the elimination of these foodstuffs from the diets of their autistic children. It is recommended that a nutritionist be consulted to assist with insuring a balanced diet to compensate for the removal of foodstuffs containing dairy and gluten.
There are many different medications that are prescribed to treat the symptoms of autism. While no drugs exist that can cure autism, certain drugs may be prescribed to treat the symptoms.
Whether or not to use prescription drugs is a personal choice that needs to be made on the basis of an informed decision as to the benefits and disadvantages involved. It is always important to balance symptomatic relief of symptoms with possible side effects and health disadvantages.
If prescription drugs are used, it is essential that these are prescribed and regularly monitored by an experienced professional to prevent dosage problems as well as adverse drug interactions.
It is also important to realize that there are effective natural treatments for autism using herbal and homeopathic remedies instead of prescription drugs. As with any medication, it is always best to consult your doctor before changing or discontinuing any prescribed medicines.
Herbal and Homeopathic Remedies
Natural healing treatments for autism may be just as effective, and can be viable alternatives to synthetic drugs, with far fewer risks and side effects.
It is important to only use remedies from a reliable source, as the quality of herbs used as well as methods of preparation may affect the strength and effectiveness of the remedy.
A holistic approach uses nature’s intrinsic ingredients to better address the underlying issues – and not just treat the symptoms of autism. Depending on the issues that need to be addressed (which will be different between children), certain herbal and homeopathic ingredients such as Melissa officinalis, Passiflora, St. John’s wort, and Chamomila may be recommended as part of a holistic treatment plan.
Biochemic tissue salt combinations to support brain and mood functioning may also be very beneficial. If your child is already taking prescription medication, remember to consult your health professional before making changes or combining herbal remedies.
In addition, flower essences can help facilitate balance in the body through the organic healing energy of the plant. These herbal infusions, made from the flowering part of the plant, uniquely address both emotional and mental aspects of wellness. In addition, rather than focusing on only physical symptoms, flower essences address specific life challenges, which can be especially helpful for autistic children.
More Information on Autism
Other Disorders Related to Autism
Autism is one of five developmental disorders classified under the heading of pervasive developmental disorders (PDD). The other four are Asperger's Syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD), Rett's Disorder and PDD - not otherwise specified (PDD - NOS). Children with autism are also more likely to have or develop other disorders such as:
- Fragile X syndrome, which causes mental retardation
- Tuberous sclerosis, in which tumors grow in the brain
- Tourette's Syndrome
- ADD and ADHD
Tips for Concerned Parents
- Learn about autism.
The more you know about your child’s problems and differences, the more you can do to help them. There is a wealth of information available, including books, Web sites, articles, and professionals offering information and support. While not all of this information will be useful or correct, you may just find a gem of wonderful advice or a treatment option that really works for your child.
- Help others to understand your child.
Parents know their children best, and are aware of what sets them off and what comforts them. Inform educators and professionals of these things so that their time spent with your child is more productive.
- Change your expectations.
This is possibly one of the biggest challenges to face. Your child probably won’t become the surgeon that you hoped he would, and won’t always be on par with other children as far as developmental milestones and appropriate behaviors go. Start with smaller, obtainable goals, and focus on helping your child reach his or her unique potential.
- Monitor sensory in-put.
Most children with autism either become overwhelmed by too much sensory stimulation, or get frustrated because they crave it. Learn to read your child’s needs and accommodate their environment accordingly. For instance, if your child is screaming and blocking his or her ears, create a quiet environment.
- Channel unusual behavior into appropriate behaviors.
If your child has stims (self-stimulating behavior) adapt these behaviors to be more socially acceptable, such as spinning on a tire swing instead of going to a shopping mall, or climbing a jungle gym rather than the household furniture.
- Concentrate on what children can do rather on what they can’t do.
Encourage and praise their strengths, and do not make them feel ashamed of their weaknesses.
- Enjoy quality time together.
In very structured treatment plans, you may begin to feel more like the teacher or therapist of an autistic child, instead of a parent. Even when you are involved in play therapy or "floor time", remember to enjoy your child’s company and have fun. While continuing treatment at home is important, don’t lose sight of the fact that your primary role is loving parent.
- Try to worry less about what other people think.
Others may see your child’s behavior as odd, unruly, or a result of bad parenting. Keep in mind that you are doing the best you can, and so is your child. "Normal" behavior is always relative.
Tips for Preparing Autistic Children for Puberty
Puberty is a difficult time for any teenager; however, for a teenager with autism, this time is even more challenging and confusing. The emotional and physical changes should be addressed for both boys and girls, with a parent or trusted adult helping to explain and assist with these changes. Often, it is common for caregivers to try and avoid difficult discussions, especially those related to sexuality.
However, such topics must be appropriately handled to help the autistic teen during this transitional time. Boys in particular tend to display inappropriate or socially unacceptable behaviors (such as inappropriate touching), which can lead to isolation and social repercussions from peers. This teasing can even lead to long-term emotional problems for the autistic teen.
For both boys and girls, physical changes can be very upsetting as well. Especially for autistic teen girls, normal development changes like menstruation can cause a lot of distress and fear. Be sure to help prepare her and explain proper hygiene to avoid infections or chafing.
If needed, consult a pediatrician for assistance. He or she may also be provide a referral for additional specialized help from a child psychiatrist or psychologist, especially if the autistic teen is having a very hard time adjusting to these normal mood, behavioral, or physical changes associated with puberty.