Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder is considered to be a range of neurodevelopment disorders, complex in nature, that are characterized by difficulties in communication and social interactions and patterns of behavior that can be limited and repetitive. It affects all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and all ages of people. However, males are four times more likely to have autism than females.
There are no real medical tests to diagnose autism but it is usually the parents of an autistic child who notice that their child is showing unusual behavior, primarily impaired social interaction. Even as an infant, a child with autism may be unresponsive to people or focus intently on one item or toy to the exclusion of others for long periods of time and playing with those items or toys in unusual, repetitive ways.
Other signs that parents may notice are children that fail to make eye contact or respond to their names. They may also show no big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions beginning at the age of six months; not babble by the age of one year; no words by the age of 16 months; and not be able to speak meaningful, two-phrases by the age of 24 months and so learn to speak later than most other children. Some engage in repetitive movements such as twirling and rocking or back their heads against a wall or other items in the home. They basically do not know how to play with other children and when they do learn to talk, speak in a sing-song voice on topics that may not interest those with whom they are supposed to be engaged.
During the routine visits to the doctor during a child’s first three years, the child should be screened for developmental milestones and if these screenings raise concerns about a child’s development, then that child should be referred to a specialist in developmental evaluation and early intervention. Early diagnosis and treatment can help the child reach his or her full potential.
A typical evaluation to diagnose autism requires a multi-disciplinary team of a pediatrician, speech and language pathologist, psychologist and an occupational therapist. There is usually a comprehensive list of tests that child undergoes to help both the parents and the health care professionals better understand the child’s needs and strengths.
There may be behavioral assessments that can include a medical history about the child’s development, clinical observations to see how the child reacts in different situations and developmental and intelligence tests to evaluate whether the developmental delays of a child are affecting their ability to think and make decisions.
There may physical assessments such as a physical exam to determine if the child is growing normally, hearing tests to determine whether hearing problems may be causing developmental delays related to social skills and language use, genetic testing to determine a family history of intellectual disability, an electroencephalograph for determination of symptoms of seizures and an MRI to see if there are signs of differences in the child’s brain structure.
A diagnosis of autism can provide relief to parents and provide opportunities to therapies and assistive technologies that can improve function in areas of difficulty and, so, improve overall quality of life.