What is autism?

Autism is a very complex condition, the understanding of which changes on an almost-daily basis. The amount of information available on this condition is astounding, and leaves many parents, caregivers and even service providers understandably overloaded.

The definition of autism

Currently based on the Fourth Edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM – IV), Autism Spectrum Disorder is based on three pillars:

1.    Inability or severe difficulty in social interaction
2.    Inability or severe difficulty or delay in communication
3.    Restrictive, repetitive and stereotypical behaviour patterns, interests and activities

Autism is a life-long condition and occurs because of disorder brain growth, structure and development and is believed to stem from a genetic predisposition that is triggered by environmental factors, says Autism South Africa.

Although each child with autism is unique and will have different symptoms, challenges and strengths, there are two main types of autism. 76% of children will be diagnosed with classic autism and 24% will have Aspergers Syndrome, a form of autism where children have no intellectual impairments or speech delays.

When autism starts

The delays and behaviours that characterise autism start early - prior to 3years of age. And whereas in the past, a diagnosis could only be made after this age, it is now possible to achieve a diagnosis at the age of 18 months.

There is a push to diagnose children even earlier and US studies now show that a quick 5-minute screen designed to be done at well-baby clinic check-ups could enable children to be referred to a specialist, as early as 12 months.

The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put the incidence at an average of 1 in 110 children in that country. However a more recent study done by Young-Shin Kim and Yale University’s Child Study Center assessed over 50,000 12-year-olds in South Korea and found a much higher rate of 1 in every 38 children who were on the autism spectrum.

Geraldine Dawson of Autism Speaks, the advocacy group who funded the study, said in a statement, ‘These findings suggest that ASD is under-diagnosed and under-reported and that rigorous screening and comprehensive population studies may be necessary to produce accurate ASD prevalence estimates.’

Signs of autism

Red flags are those early signs and symptoms that suggest that a child may be at risk for a diagnosis of autism.  By knowing what the red flags are, parents and professionals who work with young children can arm themselves with the knowledge needed to make a real difference - because the earlier autism is diagnosed, the better the prognosis.

•    11 months     - No babbling
•    12 months    - No simple gestures (like waving bye)
•    16 months    - No single words
•    24 months     - No two-word phrases
•    At any time    - No response to name, causing concerns about hearing
- Loss of language or social skills
- Rarely making eye contact
- Does not play peek-a-boo
- Rarely smiles socially
- More interested in looking at objects than people’s faces
- Prefers to play alone
- Doesn’t try to get parent’s attention
- Doesn’t look at something that you point at
- Seem to be in a world of their own
- Odd or repetitive ways of moving fingers or hands
- Oversensitive to certain textures, sounds, or lights
- Lack of interest in toys or plays with them in unusual ways
- Compulsions or rituals (performing activities in a special way or certain     sequence)
- Preoccupations with unusual interests such as light switches, doors, fans,     wheels.

Prognosis and treatment

Autism is a not a condition that affects all children in the same way, and as such, there is no single treatment or predictable prognosis. What works for some children on the autism spectrum does not work for others.

Lauren Schrempel from the Autism Association explains, ‘prognosis is so difficult to make, impossible almost. But we can say without a doubt is that early intervention does positively affect prognosis in all children. That is why it is important to be aware of red flags and seek professional help if you or a loved one suspects that a child you know might be autistic.’

The message is clear – be aware, know the red flags, and act early.

Autism support

For a more comprehensive list of red flags, go to the CDC website.
For local support, both the Autism Association and Autism South African work in unison to support, guide and assist parents, caregivers and service providers.
All-Hours Emergency Number (Autism Association): 072 292 2366

Do you have experience of autism in your family? Share your experience below or mail chatback@parent24.com

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