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Autism Spectrum Disorder In Children: Types, Causes, Treatment And Prevention

Autism Spectrum Disorder In Children

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Autism spectrum disorder or ASD is a cluster of neurodevelopmental disorders or conditions in which a child is not able to respond to certain social situations appropriately.

A child with ASD finds it difficult to learn skills needed for everyday functioning. This affects their behavior, communication, and ability to understand non-verbal social cues.

ASD is an umbrella term for several mental disorders. It impacts the life of the child and their social skills, but it is not something one should be overly worried about (1).

Learn more about the types, causes, risk factors, treatment, and management of autism spectrum disorder in children in this post.

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. Asperger’s syndrome

The term Asperger’s syndrome is no longer used by the medical fraternity. Instead, 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. 

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.

Often, children are not diagnosed with ASD until they are much older; however, by the time the child turns two, you can rely on the diagnosis conducted by an experienced mental health professional during well-child check-ups.

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).

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.

References:

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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