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Autism – A Growing Problem

Over three million people in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide are currently affected by ASD (Autism spectrum disorder), which includes Autism, Asperger syndrome and an assessment of intellectual disability and language impairment.

It is estimated that around 1 in 68 American children has ASD. According to the CDC (Center of Disease Control) the prevalence of ASD has increased 10 times over a 40-year period. Studies show that autism is four to five times more common among boys than girls. Government statistics on autism suggest that it has increased as much as 17% in recent years. Why? There is no currently known and established explanation.

Some studies point to a possible disruption in normal brain growth during early development which could be due to defects in genes or brain cell communication. This could be more common in children born prematurely. Parental practices and vaccination to prevent childhood infectious disease have been shown NOT to increase the risk of autism.

Symptoms of this spectrum affect the functioning of daily activities and are present from early childhood. There is a wide range of repetitive behavior patterns, difficulties with social interaction, in using language and abstract concepts, and difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people. Some children and adults with ASD require strong support to perform basic activities while others are able to perform all daily activities independently

Growing research suggests that taking prenatal vitamins containing folic acid along with a rich diet in folic acid during the months before and after conception may reduce the risk of having a child with autism. The immune system and environmental issues involving events before and during birth are also being studied. Some risk factors may be due to genetics, advanced parental age (both parents), maternal illness during pregnancy and oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain. About 20-30 percent of children who have delayed language skills before age three have a risk of developing epilepsy.

Those with ASD may have a hard time understanding body language, gestures (like waving), tone of voice and other non-verbal clues. They may have repetitive or unusual movements like rocking side to side, twirling or flapping their arms. Routine is helpful but they can have angry, emotional outbursts when placed in a new (stimulating) environment.

Diagnosing ASD can be difficult since there is no medical test, like a blood test, to diagnose the disorders. The diagnosis is made by looking at the child’s behavior and development. Some ASD can be detected at 18 months or younger and a diagnosis is considered reliable by age 2 when examined by an experienced professional.

Parents are the key to a correct diagnosis. If there is no babbling by age one and no single words by age 16 months, or no response to their own name, it is important to get a pediatrician’s opinion. Usually eye contact, smiling or social responses are avoided. It will take a team of professionals to help – usually involving a psychologist, neurologist, speech therapist and others. This child will usually require some special education assistance.

Although there is no cure, early interventions may allow people with ASD to be able to work successfully and live with more independence. Living with an ASD child is not easy. It is important to get early behavioral/educational interventions to improve success in treating symptoms and behavior. It can be challenging to live with a child with ASD and family counseling for the parents and siblings may be necessary.

NINDS (the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke is researching the brain and nervous system to reduce this neurological disease and others. We are privileged to live within the boundaries of the new Rady Pediatric Genomics and Systems Medical Institute which is conducting ongoing research in neuroscience where treatment can be individualized. This is occurring in only two places in the U.S.

Often a person with ASD looks no different from others, but people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need less.

If you suspect your child may have these problems, and you child is not yet 3 years old, call the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (ECTA) AT 919 962-2991 or visit their website.

If your child is three years old or older, contact your local elementary system and ask to speak to someone who can have the child evaluated. This should be a free evaluation. You do not need to wait for a doctor’s referral or a medical diagnosis to make this call.

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