Autism Spectrum Disorder In Children: Types, Symptoms & Causes

check_icon Research-backed

Image: Shutterstock

IN THIS ARTICLE

Autism spectrum disorder(ASD) in children is a collection of neurodevelopmental disorders or conditions in which a child cannot respond to certain social situations appropriately. As a result, it may be difficult for a child with ASD to learn skills required for everyday functioning that might eventually affect their behavior, communication, and the ability to understand non-verbal social skills. ASD mainly affects children’s social skills and might impact their lives (1).

Read on about the types, causes, risk factors, treatment, and management of autism spectrum disorder in children.

How Common Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

According to estimates made by CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, about one in 54 children are diagnosed with ASD. The disorder is more common in boys than girls and is prevalent in people of all racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic backgrounds (2).

Types Of Autism Spectrum Disorder

There are five main types of autism spectrum disorder (3).

1. Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder

Although it was earlier called Asperger’s syndrome (most people are still familiar with this name), it has been reclassified as level 1 autism spectrum disorder by the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 diagnostic manual. The syndrome is characterized by problems with social and communication skills.

2. Rett syndrome

It is a rare neurodevelopmental disorder in infants, primarily girls. This syndrome affects almost every aspect of life as it is characterized by loss of coordination, breathing problems, and communication and speech problems. (4)

3. Childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD)

Childhood disintegrative disorder is also known as Heller’s syndrome or disintegrative psychosis. The disorder causes development problems in language, motor skills, toileting skills, or social function. 

4. Kanner’s syndrome

It is described as a classic autistic disorder. Children with this syndrome appear intelligent and alert but have a few underlying problems.

5. Pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

This is a mild type of autism disorder with varying symptoms, the most common of which include problems with the development of social and language skills.

Is Rett Syndrome An ASD?

Rett syndrome is a type of autism that usually occurs in girls. Rett syndrome is caused by a mutation in the MECP2 gene on the X chromosome and does not occur at birth. The similarities between Rett syndrome and ASD include symptoms such as repetitive behaviors, anxiety, and seizures.

Generally, children diagnosed with Rett syndrome show a temporary atypical social behavior, while those with ASD may show atypical behavior for a longer period. Also, children with Rett syndrome may have more severe movement problems than those with ASD (4).

ASD Symptoms In Children

The following are some signs and symptoms that can be noticed in children with ASD (5).

  • Reduced eye contact and lack of facial expressions
  • Inability to respond to their name
  • Preference to stay alone
  • Resistance to holding or cuddling
  • Speech delays
  • Problems starting conversations and interacting with others.
  • Abnormal tone while speaking, such as speaking like a robot or speaking to the tune of a song
  • Inability to express themselves and understand people’s expressions.
  • Difficulty understanding simple words, phrases, sentences, and questions
  • Repetition of movements, such as rocking, spinning, or hand flapping
  • Problems with coordination, such as toe walking and stiff body
  • Sensitivity to light touch or sounds
  • Peculiar food preferences

Causes And Risk Factors For ASD In Children

The exact cause of autism spectrum disorder is not known. However, experts believe that it could be a combination of environmental and genetic factors. The following factors could put a child at a higher risk for ASD (1) (6).

  • Exposure to toxins before or after birth
  • Infections before birth and low birth weight
  • Having an older parent or a sibling with ASD
  • Viral infections such as meningitis or encephalitis, which lead to brain damage.
  • Various genetic conditions are said to be involved in autism spectrum disorder. For some children, autism spectrum disorder can be due to Rett syndrome or fragile X syndrome, and for others, it could be Down syndrome.

Complications Of ASD In Children

ASD can sometimes lead to the following complications (7).

  • Fragile X syndrome
  • Intellectual disability
  • Tuberous sclerosis
  • Social and emotional problems

Diagnosis And Tests

The diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder can be tricky as no specific medical tests exist. Therefore, mental health professionals observe the child’s development pattern and behavior to conclude the diagnosis.

There are specific questionnaires for screening which your pediatrician normally does at routine well-baby visits at 18 months and 24 months of age. However, if you observe any discrepancy or abnormal behavior in your child at a younger age, bring it to your doctor’s notice so that the baby can be appropriately evaluated.

Children who show symptoms of developmental problems during well-child check-ups are further evaluated by experts such as a developmental pediatrician, a pediatric psychologist or psychiatrist, a neuropsychologist, and a speech-language pathologist. In some cases, blood tests and hearing tests may also be performed to rule out other disorders (1) (8).

Management And Treatment Of ASD In Children

The symptoms of ASD can be managed and treated using the following approaches (9).

  • Behavior and communication approaches: These approaches help the child gain a structure, organize themselves, and improve their social, communication, and movement skills.
  • Dietary approaches: These involve removing particular types of foods from the child’s diet and replacing them with vitamins and supplements.
  • Medications: Medications prescribed by a healthcare professional may help regulate their energy, focus, or any form of behavioral activity or self-injury. It may not cure the core symptoms but help in managing them.
  • Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments: Some parents may use treatment methods that fall outside the regular approaches. These may include a particular diet, chelation, or mind-body medicine. Always consult a doctor before trying any CAM treatments.

Prevention Of ASD In Children

There is no specific way to prevent ASD in children as the exact cause of the disorder is not known. Mental health professionals state that ASD is not related to the way a child is raised. They also believe that any vaccination taken during childhood has no role in the development of ASD.

Therefore, the best approach to help a child with ASD is to diagnose and treat the symptoms early. This will help enhance the child’s development and improve their quality of life (6).

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is ASD permanent?

ASD is a lifelong condition (10). However, a new study claims that if identified early, the symptoms of ASD may resolve as the child grows older (11). Many interventions assist children in learning many life skills. Engaging the child in therapy could benefit the child throughout their life.

2. Is autism a learning disability?

Autism is not a learning disability. But the signs may overlap with that of learning disabilities. These signs may also impact a child’s problem-solving ability, knowledge of verbal or non-verbal cues, attention span, and communication skills, which might affect their learning abilities.

3. At what age does ASD appear in children?

A child might show symptoms of ASD between 12 months and three years. They may reach their developmental milestones late and stop developing new skills (12).

Early intervention and attentive assistance of children with autism spectrum disorder can aid their development to a great extent. Keep track of your well-child visits and provide the child with constant support along with the help of friends and teachers.

Key Pointers

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in children can be of five types.
  • Maternal exposure to toxins, genetic inheritance, and other underlying factors increase the risk of this condition.
  • Delay of speech, repeated movements, and problems with understanding words are some of the common symptoms.
  • Diagnosis generally involves understanding the child’s development and behavioral pattern.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
The following two tabs change content below.

Dr. Garima Garg Seth

(MD)
Dr. Garima Garg Seth is a well-known pediatrician in Gurgaon, having more than 19 years of experience in this field. She has completed her education from topmost organizations in India, including AIIMS, New Delhi; Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi; and CMC Vellore. She headed the pediatric ICU of Max Hospital Gurgaon for six years.  Dr. Seth is a strong... more

Manjari Srivastava

Manjari Srivastava is a graduate of psychology. She also holds certificates in Basics In Clinical Psychology and Identifying Early Signs Of Psychosis In Adolescents And Young Adults.  Previously, she volunteered with an NGO specializing in positive psychology, where she took up individual counseling sessions for students. She also taught English to underprivileged children and helped them with their studies. At MomJunction,... more

LATEST ARTICLES