Autism spectrum disorder, also known as ASD, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can cause significant social, communication and behavioural difficulties.
What are the symptoms?
ASD symptoms can vary widely, and, generally, symptoms start appearing in the first two years of life. As autism can vary a lot depending on the type and severity of symptoms, it is also known as a spectrum disorder. Here are the most common symptoms of autism:
Difficulty in communicating and interacting with others
Difficulty in understanding others’ feelings or thoughts
Different things can trigger stress or make them uncomfortable, such as bright lights or loud noises
Struggle to understand information
How common is it?
Currently, autism affects 1-2% of the UK population, and children from any economic background, ethnicity, race, and gender can be diagnosed with ASD. It is important to remember that being autistic is not the same as having a disease, it just means that the brain works differently; even though individuals diagnosed with autism will live with it forever, many options will help improve the symptoms and their daily functioning.
What are the risk factors?
Until today, there is no primary cause of autism, but thanks to research, we now know that our genes, together with some environmental aspects, can affect one’s development.
The likelihood of having autism can increase when:
-there is a sibling in the family with ASD (50 times greater risk of ASD)
-having older parents
-child’s sex (boys are 4 times more likely to develop ASD)
-some genetic conditions (i.e. fragile X syndrome)
-prematurity (less than 26 weeks) / very low birth weight
Unfortunately, there are many theories out there about what causes autism, and this is a perfect space to clear this out: bad parenting will NOT cause ASD, vaccines will NOT cause ASD, the type of diet will NOT cause ASD, and infections at birth will NOT cause ASD.
How can it be diagnosed?
An ASD diagnosis can be pretty challenging because no specific medical test can be run to make the diagnosis. The diagnosis is made by health care professionals who evaluate the child’s behaviour and development. As mentioned before, there is no specific medical test, that’s why the consultant may use different tools and tests, including:
-look at your child’s social interactions/communication skills and how they’ve changed over time
-apply a developmental screening
-an in-depth conversation with the family about the child’s developmental history
-run tests on speech, language, hearing
-run structured social/communication interactions with the patient and score their performance (according to their age)
-in some cases, recommend genetic testing
Suppose you suspect your child has many symptoms of ASD. In that case, it is important to look for a specialist to evaluate them because the earlier the diagnosis is made, the better outcomes the child will have as treatments and services can be provided at an early stage. The diagnosis of ASD can be done from the age of 2 and can be considered reliable.
What to do after a diagnosis has been made?
First of all, give yourself and your family time to understand the diagnosis; remember there is lots of help available and that individuals with ASD can live a full life. As ASD is different for everyone, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but many options exist to help the child with their specific difficulties. Services focus mainly on helping the child by teaching them behaviour and communication, educational, and family therapy skills (they should be involved too). Moreover, there is no medication that will improve the core signs of ASD. Still, medication can help with some symptoms, such as hyperactivity, anxiety, depression, and irritability. This is why a proper assessment by a specialist is so important, because the next steps after the diagnosis will depend on each case.
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