What Is Autism?
Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disability which is normally diagnosed in early childhood. People with autism experience the world differently from non-autistic people.
They may have difficulty communicating with or relating to others or interacting with the environment around them. Because of this, people with autism can find certain situations overwhelming and will need to develop coping strategies to live a fulfilling life.
Because autism is a spectrum disorder, it affects everybody differently. Some people may have very severe symptoms and need lifelong care and support. Others may be able to function relatively well in their daily lives, but could still struggle in social situations or relationships.
What Causes Autism?
Autism is a complex disorder, and the exact cause is still unclear. Scientists now believe that there is a strong genetic factor involved, although the gene responsible has not yet been identified.
Some believe that a genetic tendency towards autism can be “triggered” by certain environmental factors such as being born prematurely or being exposed to alcohol or certain medications in the womb.
It was once thought that factors such as upbringing or diet could play a role in the development of autism. However, this idea has now been disproved, and advances in medical imaging have shown that autism causes physical changes in the shape and structure of the brain, changing the way it processes information.
Autism has also frequently been linked to certain vaccinations, especially the MMR vaccine. A great deal of research has been carried out in this field, and no evidence has been found to support this theory.
Symptoms of Autism
Autism affects everybody differently, and the symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. There are, however, a few classic symptoms of autism which are typically seen to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the severity of the condition.
Difficulties With Speech, Language or Communication
One of the first signs of autism in children is delayed development of speech and language skills. They might say their first words later than other children or fail to respond when somebody calls their name. As they grow older, people with autism may find it more difficult than others to interpret body language or tone of voice, making it harder for them to communicate effectively. Some people with autism may prefer to use sign language or visual aids rather than communicating verbally.
Difficulties With Social Interaction
People with autism can find it hard to understand other people’s feelings or emotions. This makes it harder for them to socialize and form relationships. Many children with autism will choose to play alone rather than with other children, and many adults can find social situations uncomfortable.
Repetitive Behavior or a Strong Need for Routine
People with autism can easily be overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells of everyday life, and one way of coping with this is to develop a set daily routine. However, even small changes in this routine can be extremely distressing and can make it challenging to visit new places or try new things.
There are a number of other symptoms which may affect some people with autism. These symptoms include:
- Learning difficulties.
- Over or under-reaction to sensory stimulation.
- Mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Obsessive-compulsive behavior.
- Sleep disorders.
Treatment of Autism
Autism is a lifelong condition, and there is currently no known cure. However, there are a number of different strategies that can be used to make life easier for people with autism, and starting treatment early can be key in helping them to live a relatively normal life.
Speech and language therapy can help people with autism to develop good communication skills, and occupational therapy can help them to learn the skills they need to carry out practical, day-to-day tasks. Educational support may be useful for people with autism and learning difficulties, and finding a school which understands the needs of autistic children can make a real difference in their development.
Another therapy which shows some promise for treating autism is sensory integration therapy. This method uses various play activities with the aim of changing the way the brain responds to external stimuli such as sight, touch or sound.
Many people with autism also find counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helpful. These talking therapies can help them to learn how to cope with unexpected changes or feelings, and know what to expect in certain social situations.
One of the most important things for people with autism is having a calm and well-ordered home environment. Keeping sensory input controlled in this way can help to reduce anxiety and improve concentration, making daily life easier for people with autism and their carers.
Autism is a condition which can make life more challenging for patients, parents and caregivers alike. Difficulties with communication and social interaction can be frustrating and upsetting for all involved, and even small changes to routines can lead to severe anxiety.
However, with early diagnosis and the right care, it is possible to improve both physical and mental well-being for people with autism, giving them and their carers a greatly enhanced quality of life.