Today’s post is the second part of my post on Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). In my first post, Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) – Part I, I discussed the main disorders covered by the newly classified Autistic Spectrum Umbrella,and the common symptoms and traits seen in individuals with ASDs. Today, we’re going to discuss ASD Diagnoses, causes of ASDs, and ways to successfully help individuals with ASDs live wonderful lives.
Diagnosing an ASD isn’t an easy task. At this point in time, there’s no basic medical test that can be administered with a “yes” or “no” diagnosis on the spot. Rather, diagnosing a child with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder takes the work of parents, the child’s pediatrician, sometimes teachers (if the child’s old enough for daycare or school), as well as other primary caregivers.
Generally, testing doesn’t begin until the child begins to show signs of abnormal development. These signs include the symptoms we discussed in our first ASD post, symptoms like:
- Social developmental delay
- Communication challenges or little interpersonal interaction at all
- Unusual reactions to sensory stimulation
- High anxiety and rigidity
- Unusual and repetetive motor movements
- Llow muscle tone
- Strange obsessions
The earlier any disorder can be detected, the more likely early intervention can be of assistance. The best way to detect an ASD, as well as any other disorder or illness, is to take each child in for regular checkups with his or her pediatrician. Pediatricians are the first line of defense in diagnosing any unusual behavior or development in children. If the pediatrician thinks the behavior or signs are important enough, he can give the child a referral to a specialist. (This is how my OCD tendencies and tic disorder – which later turned into Tourette’s – were diagnosed when I was a child.)
Once it’s been decided a child needs monitoring for a disorder, according to WebMD’s article, Autism – Exams and Tests, assessments can be done on a child’s
- Physical state and growth
- Checks for seizures
- MRI tests for abnormalities in the brain
- Chromosomal analysis
Remember though, that ASDs are all on spectrums, which means that each child will be different. Some children will display only certain symptoms, while other children might seem to display all of them. In my experience, however, the earlier the intervention comes, the more higher the child’s success rate can be.
Primary caregivers like babysitters, preschool teachers, and school teachers are some great resources. The first people to spot unusual development in a child, however, are the parents or guardians. In order to do this, it’s helpful to have a basic idea of what normal childhood development looks like. If you’re not sure about this, there are great books like What to Expect the First Year, by Heidi Murkoff.
Remember, no two children will show their ASDs exactly the same way, even if they’re diagnosed with the same disorder. Even twins with the same disorders are different. Some children show signs of ASDs at birth, while others don’t show up until they’re older. Our brains are not only wired differently, but we’re individually exposed to our environments in different ways. (This exposure difference can even take place inside the womb.) I like how Stephen Shore, a man who was diagnosed with Autistic tendencies, puts it when he says, “If you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” according to the US Autism and Asperger Association.
Causes of Autism
The source of Autism is probably one of the most controversial topics in all things neurological. Many people refuse to vaccinate their children because they’ve heard that vaccines cause Autism. Other people swear certain foods and dyes cause Autism. Still, other people blame environmental factors, genetics, seizures, and viruses. So who’s right?
Actually scientists refuse to claim just one cause of ASDs. Autism Society says, “There is no known single cause for autism, but it is generally accepted that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function.” Instead of blaming one cause, scientists are beginning to think more and more that there are probably multiple causes of Autism. This makes sense, as we’ve learned there are mutiple versions of it. Instead of telling you the one cause for Autism (because I don’t believe there’s necessarily just one), I’m going to go through the causes that are plausible, based on research and my personal experience in the education field.
Genetics – While there certainly are other possibly causes, one of the first and foremost causes is genetics. As with other neurological disorders, ASDs often run in families. I’m going to cite some of the trusted Autism sources, as I couldn’t say what they say any better myself:
Mayo Clinic – Several genes appear to be involved in autism. Some may make a child more susceptible to the disorder. Others affect brain development or the way that brain cells communicate. Still others may determine the severity of symptoms. Each problem in genes may account for a small number of cases, but taken together, the influence of genes is likely substantial. Some genetic problems seem to be inherited, while others happen spontaneously.
NIH News – A version of a gene has been linked to autism in families that have more than one child with the disorder. Inheriting two copies of this version more than doubled a child’s risk of developing an autism spectrum disorder, scientists supported by the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) have discovered. In a large sample totaling 1,231 cases, they traced the connection to a tiny variation in the part of the gene that turns it on and off. People with autism spectrum disorders were more likely than others to have inherited this version, which cuts gene expression by half, likely impairing development of parts of the brain implicated in the disorder, report Drs. Daniel Campbell, Pat Levitt, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center at Vanderbilt University, and colleagues, online during the week of the October 16, 2006 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Center of Disease Control – Most scientists agree that genes are one of the risk factors that can make a person more likely to develop an ASD.Children who have a sibling or parent with an ASD are at a higher risk of also having an ASD.
Prescription drug use during pregnancy – While this obviously can’t be the only cause of Autism (as not all mothers of children with Autism have Epilepsy), scientists have found that women who use the Epilepsy drug, Valproate, are three times more likely to give birth to a child on the Autistic spectrum, according to the LA Times, US News Health, and Fox News. In a Danish study, according to Fox News, “By 2010, 4.4 percent of the kids whose mothers had taken valproate during pregnancy were diagnosed with any ASD, including 2.5 percent with autism.” While there’s no definite proof that this drug causes ASDs in children, scientists are now looking at the similarities between the mothers who take this drug and end up with children with ASDs. Parents are reminded again that it’s important to ensure their medicines are safe to take during pregancy.
Prenatal Development Disruption – WebMD says a possible cause of Autism is damage to the brain while the child is in the womb. They say, “Studies of people with autism have found abnormalities in several regions of the brain, which suggest that autism results from a disruption of early brain development while still developing in the mother’s womb.” Medical News Today says that persistant high fevers, and having the flu during pregnancy have also indicated a higher probability of having a child with Autism. Basically, parts of the brain which are forming prior to birth are in very delicate stages while in the womb. Unfortunately, brain damage is something that’s children can be exposed to during pregnancy, no matter how hard a mother tries to heave a healthy pregnancy.
Another thought that I’ve heard is that seizsures en urtero might contribute to Autism as well. Autism Speaks says that it’s estimated that nearly one third of people on the Autistic Spectrum have Epilepsy. According to Autism Speaks, Autism might contribute to the Epilepsy. I’ve also been told that while there’s no definite proof for it yet, it’s possible that Epilepsy might contribute to Autism. It’s possible that the brain could be damaged by a lack of oxygen, which can occur during seizures. Again, there’s no definite proof of this, but it makes sense to me.
What Does Not Cause Autism
Finally, we’re going to rule something out, however, that’s unfortunately still a common belief but has no scientific backing. According to CNN, In 1998, a British scientist, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, published a study that presented the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine as causing Autism. In response, hoards of people in the United States and Britain suddenly quit getting their children vaccinated. According to CBS News, millions of parents refused to give their children the vaccine, and now in the UK, where only dozens of reports of the Measles were reported yearly, thousands of cases are now being reported, which is alarming, considering how contagious the deadly disease is.
The kicker? It turns out that Wakefield was being paid by a law firm that was planning to sue the vaccine companies. The firm just needed a reason to sue them. After his research and tests were gone through, it turns out that Wakefield falsified patient information. And when he was challenged to reproduce his findings, he couldn’t. And the results of the study weren’t the only think Dr. Wakefield was unprofessional about in his practice. It’s reported that he paid children’s parents at his son’s birthday party for samples of their children’s blood. In the end, Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s reports were not only retracted from the scientific journal that published them, but he was also relieved of his right to practice.
There have been multiple large studies done to replicate Wakefield’s findings since the incident, and none have been able to prove his original theory, that the MMR vaccine causes Autism. So why do people still believe the vaccine causes Autism?
ASDs usually can show symptoms from the time of birth on up. According to the Center of Disease Control, most children should be given their first MMR vaccines between the ages of 12-15 months. If you think about it, this is the time when lots of ASD symptoms begin to show. It’s easy to make a false connection between the vaccine and the onset of ASD symptoms. Just think about it though. If the vaccine really causes Autism, then why doesn’t the large majority of the American population have Autism?
Finally, I’ll leave you with some interesting information (which honestly makes me feel better). In the NBC article, “New study finds no link between ‘too many vaccines’ and autism,” Dr. Nancy Snyderman says, “While the CDC now recommends more vaccinations than it did in the 90s, the level of antigens in today’s vaccines is markedly lower than it was when this data was collected,”
Treating Autistic Spectrum Disorders
Early intervention is the key here. I can tell you from personal experience that working with children on the Autistic Spectrum can be challenging, it’s also full of rewards. These kids often have a tougher time learning than their peers, but that’s because they see the world in a different way than the rest of us. It doesn’t mean they’re always wrong.
The Center of Disease Control says, “Services [available for children from birth to age three] include therapy to help the child talk, walk, and interact with others. Therefore, it is important to talk to your child’s doctor as soon as possible if you think your child has an ASD or other developmental problem.” Children who have this intervention often work with adults one-on-one, but they can also spend the time around other children. This can help them learn more appropriate social habits that they often don’t learn on their own.
The CDC lists four types of intervention available for children with ASDs:
- Behavior and Communication Approaches
- Dietary Approaches
- Complementary and Alternative Medicine
I know from my work in schools that it’s important to get your child an IEP or 504 Plan if he needs it when he begins school. (My post on IEPs and 504 Plans explain the differences between the aid for the student, and why it’s important to make sure they fit your child’s present needs in school.) This means that if your child has a very mild disorder on the spectrum, you can make sure he gets the few accomodations he needs, such as a seat near the front of the room if he needs it, his tests administered verbally, or a special kind of pencil grip to help him write. If your child needs larger accomodations and modifictions to his education, such as a different curriculum from his peers in certain subjects, or a personal para (an individual aid who stays with the child for a determined length of time every day), he’s guarenteed by the IDEA law to get what gives him equal access to education.
Also, education can include access to different therapies, such as occupational therapy, speech therapy, or physical therapy. I’ve been able to sit in on a few of these sessions, and they’re quite interesting to watch. Many parents who have the resources also bring their children to private institutions for therapy outside of school as well. Honestly, if you research enough, there are many of these exercises you can do with your children at home once you’re familiar with them, things like using clay to strengthen your child’s hands, doing certain core strengthening and balance enhancing exercises at home, and working with your child on how to pronounce certain sounds he or she might struggle with.
Overall, it’s most important to meet your child where he or she is. This means reading aloud, coloring, and role playing, things you would do with any normal child can still be helpful. You just need to adjust the developmental level of the play to what the child needs. And never be afraid to ask for help. All of the sources I’ve put links on today have great free resources available on working with chidlren with ASDs.
Oh, and interesting fact is that many children with Autism are extremely gifted in specific areas. Autism Speaks says this, “Each individual with autism is unique. Many of those on the autistic spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music and academic skills. About 40 percent have average to above average intellectual abilities.” My mom, who has worked with countless children with ASDs during her time teaching, puts it this way: it’s kind of like the regular information that average people have spread throughout their brains is all piled up in certain people on the Autistic Spectrum. Instead of having intelligence in every area, such as social intelligence, physical intelligence, academic intelligence, and everything else, it’s like all the intelligence has been lumped up and stuff into one area. The child may lack abilities in certain areas, but whatever area that he’s good at, he’s really good at. (This is what they were getting to in the movie, Rain Man.)
In closing, something they drilled into us in college is something I’ll never forget: your child might have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, but that disorder doesn’t define him or her. It’s simply part of who he or she is. My Tourette’s is part of who I am, but it’s not me as a whole. I am not Tourette’s. I’m an individual who has Tourette’s. The diagnosis isn’t the death sentence. Life with a child with ASD can bring very difficult times, but it can also bring immense joy.
Have you ever worked with a child with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder? Do you have any favorite intervention techniques you’d like to share? And don’t forget you can receive extra resources that I don’t include in my posts, and information on neurological disorders, education, and inspiration (as well as a thank you gift for subscribing!) if you sign up for my weekly newsletter