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Autism in Children: Causes & Caring Tips

What is Autism?

Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioural challenges. A child with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from other children. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of children with ASD can range from the gifted to severely challenged. Some children with ASD may need a lot of help in their daily lives and may never live independently. On the other hand, others may thrive, succeed, and be content in life even without any treatment.

Autism
In the past, there used to be many different terms for the various types of autism with Asperger syndrome being the most common label. Other terms such as childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder were also used. These conditions are now all known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Children with other disorders such as Williams Syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome, Landau-Kleffner Syndrome, Prader-Willi Syndrome, Angelman Syndrome, Rett Syndrome, and Tardive Dyskinesia may demonstrate autism-like features. An important part of any autism evaluation includes ruling out that any of these other disorders are present, as they have important additional symptoms which would result in different outcomes and treatment.
ASD occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, but it is about 4 times more common among boys as compared to girls.

What Causes Autism?

No one knows what causes most cases of autism. Older parents are more likely to have a child with autism, and having a sibling with autism also carries a higher risk. Environmental, biologic and genetic influences all appear to play some role, but it is rare to find a single cause. Vaccines do not cause autism spectrum disorder. For more than twenty years, it has been claimed autism is caused by vaccines. After years of extensive research, no reliable study has shown a link between any vaccine (including the MMR) and autism spectrum disorder. The original study that started the concerns years ago was retracted due to poor design and questionable research methods, and the doctor who wrote it had his medical license revoked. Multiple large studies since then which studied millions of children have found no association.

Does My Child have Autism?

Signs of autistic behaviour in children typically appear between 2 – 3 years of age. In some cases, autism disorders can be diagnosed as early as 15 to 18 months. Children with ASD often have problems with social, emotional, and communication skills. They display repetitive speech and behaviours, or are very dependent on maintaining a regular daily routine. Many children with ASD may also have different ways of learning, paying attention, or reacting to things.

Symptoms of autism in young children include:

Spoken language:

  • Delay in speech development (e.g. speaking less than 50 different words by 2 years of age) or no speech at all
  • Frequent repetition of the same set of words
  • Preference for communicating using single words despite being able to string sentences together
  • Difficulty in expressing their feelings

Responding to others:

  • Not responding when their name is called despite having normal hearing
  • Rejecting affectionate gestures like hugs initiated by a parent or caregiver (although children may initiate hugs themselves)
  • Reacting negatively when asked to do something by others

Interaction with others:

  • Unaware of other’s personal space, or displaying intolerance when another person enters their personal space
  • Uninterested in interacting with others, including children of a similar age
  • Prefers to play alone
  • Avoiding eye contact

Behaviour:

  • Displays repetitive movements (e.g. flapping their hands, rocking back and forth, flicking their fingers)
  • Prefers to adhere to a familiar routine and gets very upset if there is a change to the routine
  • Not being able to follow simple commands
Children with ASD often have problems with social, emotional, and communication skills. They display repetitive speech and behaviours or be very dependent on maintaining a regular daily routine. Many children with ASD may also have different ways of learning, paying attention, or reacting to things.

When Should I Start Looking Out For Symptoms of Autism?

By 3-4 months, children should be able to socialize, smile, and make good eye contact. Children who show little interest in interacting with other children, do not make eye contact or dislike being held or cuddled as they get older may be a concern.
By 12-15 months, most children are very responsive and would engage physically and emotionally with the world around them. Children who do not respond to their surroundings or are unable to follow simple commands by the time they are 12-15 months may be a concern.
By the age of 2.5 to 3, children generally enjoy playing creative and imaginative games with their peers. Children of this age who dislike playing with their peers may be a worrisome sign. On the other hand, children who may be interested to play with their peers but are unable to play normally is also a concern.
None of these symptoms alone are concerning and are actually common in thriving, normally developing children. Some children are shy or may prefer playing alone, and it is normal. Most children feel comfortable with a routine and may react strongly to changes, or refuse certain foods based solely on appearance. Your doctor will look at the overall development and growth of your child, not just one or two behaviours to determine if your child has autism.

When Should My Child Be Screened for Autism?

Screening for autism should be part of every well check and this is why discussing developmental milestones is an important part of health visits apart from getting vaccines. While autism may be noticed by 18 months, it can be very difficult to detect and may take until the age 2-3 years to be able to diagnose a child.
Many children have harmless speech or motor delays (especially speech delays in boys or children in multilingual families), and your doctor should be able to determine if a delay is benign or if a larger evaluation and therapy are required.

What Are the Treatment Options and Ways to Manage Autism?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for autism. The condition can however be managed with early intervention treatment services, including speech, physical and occupational therapy, depending on the specific needs of each child. Therapy may be required for years, and starting early would be beneficial for the child.

How Do I Care for a Child with Autism?

If your child has autism, the best solution is to seek help and start treatment immediately. Do not wait and hope that your child will eventually catch up to his or her peers or outgrow the problem. The earlier your child receives treatment, the greater the success rate. Early intervention is the most effective way to help your child reach their development potential and manage the symptoms of autism as they grow up.

1. Learn about autism

If you are well-equipped in your knowledge of autism and autism spectrum disorders, you can make better informed decisions and participate in your child’s treatment.

2. Become an expert on your child

Monitor your child’s behaviour closely and observe what triggers disruptive behaviour and what evokes a positive response. If you understand your child’s challenges well, you can help prevent, change or handle situations that affect them.

3. Accept your child

Instead of focusing on how your child is different from other children, practising acceptance is key. Feeling a parent’s unconditional love and acceptance will help your child immensely. Enjoy time spent with your child, celebrate small successes of learning or improvement, and do not compare your child to others.

4. Do not give up

Find help and support. It is important to remember that individuals with autism may spend an entire lifetime growing and developing their abilities. Caring for an autistic child requires plenty of energy, time and patience. Parents may often feel overwhelmed and discouraged. Therefore, it is crucial that parents ensure their health and well-being are taken care of. Take breaks when necessary and seek channels where families with autistic children can join to get advice, help and support.

Talk to Your Child’s Paediatrician

If you think your child might have autism, a developmental problem or worry that there might be a problem with the way your child speaks, moves, plays, or learns, share your concerns with your child’s doctor. If the doctor is still concerned, you can always get a referral to consult a Developmental Specialist.
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