Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder of varying severity characterized by difficulties in communication and social interaction, along with restricted or repetitive thought and behavioral patterns. Symptoms typically impair the person’s ability to function properly at school and work and the ability to form and maintain relationships. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), autism affects nearly 1 in 59 children in the U.S.
Autism is considered a spectrum disorder because it manifests as several subtypes according to the unique combination of genetic and environmental factors. Every individual with autism has distinct strengths and weaknesses, and their level of function can range from severely challenged to highly skilled.
Symptoms of Autism
Children with autism usually show signs of it by two or three years of age, and it can often be diagnosed as early as 18 months. Symptoms include:
- Poor eye contact or avoiding eye contact
- Failing to or being slow to respond to someone calling their name or other attempts at getting their attention
- Difficulty carrying on a conversation
- Facial expressions, movements, or gestures uncharacteristic of the situation
- Abnormal tone of voice (for example, sing-song or robotic)
- Deficits in language comprehension or delay in learning to speak
- Not engaging in play with peers or preferring to be alone
- Preoccupation with specific topics
- Repeating words, phrases, or movements
- Getting upset by slight changes in routine
- Being more or less sensitive (than normal) to sensory input, such as light, sounds, touch, or temperature
- Able to learn things in detail and remember information for long periods of time
Other medical conditions often associated with autism include the following:
- Gastrointestinal disorders, such as encopresis (inability to control bowel movements)
- Sleep disorders
Autism Treatment Options
Unfortunately, there is no cure for autism and no medication specifically to treat it, although certain medications may help with related symptoms or conditions, such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, seizures, and trouble focusing.
Early intervention is one of the keys to successful treatment, so if you suspect that your child or grandchild has an autism spectrum disorder, we strongly encourage you to schedule a professional evaluation of the child as soon as possible. If the diagnosis is confirmed, a combination of treatments can help promote childhood development and prevent a worsening of the condition.
Treatments can be broken down into the following four categories:
- Behavior and communication methodologies
- Dietary approaches
- Complementary and alternative medicine
Behavior and communication methodologies
A variety of programs that provide structure, direction, and organization to help the child learn, develop positive behaviors and skills, and encourage family participation have been proven to be effective in promoting childhood development. Treatments in this category include the following:
- Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA): ABA involves the use of one or more techniques to encourage positive behavior, discourage negative behavior, and aid in the development of new skills. Approaches include Discreet Trial Training (DTT), Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI), Pivotal Response Training (PRT), and Verbal Behavior Intervention (VBI). All of these approaches involve tracking and measuring the child’s progress.
- Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-Based Approach (DIR): Also called “Floortime,” this approach focuses on developing emotions (feelings) and relationships with caregivers while helping the child deal more effectively with sights, sounds, smells, and other sensory input.
- Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped Children (TEACCH): This approach breaks down processes into small steps and uses visual cues, such as picture cards, to lead the child through the step-by-step process.
- Occupational therapy: The focus here is on teaching the skills required to live independently, such as getting dressed, eating, bathing, relating to others, and developing specific job skills.
- Sensory integration therapy: If a child reacts strongly to certain sensory input such as sounds, light, or touch, sensory integration therapy helps the child process that input in a way that is less stressful.
- Speech therapy: The focus here is to improve the person’s ability to communicate, both verbally and non-verbally.
Dietary approaches are based on the premise that certain foods or nutritional deficiencies cause or contribute to a person’s autism. These dietary approaches may involve avoiding certain foods or food groups, such as dairy, wheat, or gluten, or supplementing the diet with specific vitamins, minerals, or herbs.
No medication can cure autism or even improve the primary symptoms, but medications may help alleviate related symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, or seizures.
Complementary and alternative medicine
Some parents and healthcare professionals reach outside the world of conventional medicine and therapy to try complementary and alternative treatments. These treatments include special diets, medically supervised detoxification, chelation (to remove heavy metals such as lead and mercury from the body), body-base systems (such as massage and acupuncture), music therapy, and even horseback riding.