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Understanding Autism: What Every Family Should Know

by Michael Kabel

It´s a devastating disorder that strikes as many as six out of every thousand children in the United States alone.

Autism, sometimes called "classical autism," is one of the five developmental disorders collectively known as Autism Spectrum Disorders, or ASDs. The signs are often marked and startling, and can lead to intense difficulties for children growing up and later functioning in the everyday world as adults. The disorder is also often heartbreaking for parents who feel powerless against its effects.

As public awareness of the disorder´s widespread presence grows, new research is diving headlong into the search for a cure, including ways to regulate diet and lifestyle in order to manage and minimize symptoms. While there´s still no known solution, patients and their families are quick to point out that autism is a disease, not a disability.

Understanding Autism and the Autism cluster

Autism is one of the five known Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD´s), which are characterized by the presence of several telling and compelling symptoms. Of the other four, Asperger´s syndrome is very similar in neurological basis to classical autism, while Rett Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and a miscellaneous grouping of symptoms known as PDD-Not Otherwise Specified (or PDD-NOS) have similar signs but different causes.

In particular, Asperger´s Syndrome is sometimes understood as a milder form of autism. Children with very mild symptoms of too little severity to make a formal diagnosis are sometimes also considered as having PDD-NOS.

Autism is understood as a spectrum disorder because its symptoms and traits routinely present themselves in a variety of conditions and levels of severity. Even children with approximate diagnoses can still exhibit vastly different behavior. There is a strong hereditary factor to autism´s presence, and male children are four times more likely to have it than females.

Autism and other disorders

Children with autism are often at higher risk for neurological and learning disabilities, including Tourette syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Martin-Bell syndrome (a leading cause of mental retardation.) As many as thirty percent of autistic children develop epilepsy before reaching adulthood.

Autism is a complex and life-long condition.

Autism symptoms usually begin during infancy or early childhood and continue without remission – the symptoms are constant and pervasive throughout the patient´s life. Medical researchers believe it comes from a neurological disorder deep within the brain´s chemistry.

Autism´s basic symptoms are easy to identify.

Autism´s symptoms are easily recognized in children – sometimes alarmingly so. Typical symptoms include a variety of behavioral disorders, including impaired social interaction, repetition of hand and body movements and other compulsive behavior, impaired speech and communication skills, and limited interests or activities.

At their most severe, symptoms can totally prevent speech and make impossible even the most basic social and environmental interactions.

Spotting the early warning signs.

Autism´s most telltale sign is lack of social interaction during infancy. The child may be unresponsive to stimuli or appear unwilling to engage in interaction with one or both parents. Autistic children may also develop normally at first but then retreat from social interaction when prompted. As symptoms manifest, children will fail to answer when their name is called or refuse to return conversation. They may also avoid eye contact and shun new faces and personalities introduced into their surroundings.

Some of the more visibly obvious symptoms of autism and its related disorders come from repetitive behavior. Parents of children up to three years old should be aware that such behavior may indicate autistic tendencies.

Understanding repetitive behavior

Many younger children with autism often rock their bodies or move their limbs in a highly repetitive fashion, a condition known as stereotypy. They may also harm themselves with biting, clawing, or scratching at their limbs and bodies. Witnessing such behavior is often frightening, not least of which for parents and siblings. Nevertheless, it´s important to remember that the autism patient is unable to control their actions – the behavior is involuntary.

Autistic children sometimes engage in compulsive behavior such as organization or classification of normal everyday objects. Such activities can include stacking or linking together toys and accessories found in the nursery or throughout the house. Other behavior may include a marked and emotional resistance to change in daily routine, and an insistence that daily activities be performed the same way each time.

Restricted behavior includes fascination or preoccupation with the same stimulus over and over again, without a loss of interest. Autistic children sometimes insist on watching the same television show or hearing the same story; again, they can become quite emotional if this perceived routine is changed.

The autism diagnosis

Because the severity of autism varies almost from child to child, doctors are often extremely cautious in making a formal diagnosis. They will instead use a series of questionnaires and interviews with children and their parents to gauge its necessity. Patients and their families can understand autism as a "diagnosis of last resort" – applied only when other potential explanations for symptoms have been exhausted.

The formal diagnosis is obtained through a thorough and complex procedure, involving the consultation of the doctor, a neurologist, psychiatrist, a speech therapist, and possibly other professionals knowledgeable in autistic symptoms. In particular, doctors will often request that a child have their hearing tested before concluding a diagnosis. Behavior stemming from hearing and speech development problems often mirror autistic behavior.

Understanding the causes of autism

While an exact cause is yet to become identified, scientists strongly believe a combination of genetics and environment play a role. Research has already discovered several genes they believe play a contributing factor.

Another theory believes that increased or abnormal amounts of neurotransmitters such as serotonin contribute to autism by hampering early brain development. While genetics play a key part (as evidenced by the strong hereditary component), autism has yet to become traced to a single gene or chromosome abnormality or mutation.

In recent years a growing and vocal group of parents of autistic children have advocated a theory linking early and heavy vaccinations with autism disorders. In particular, some believe that heavy metals such as ethyl mercury used in vaccine preservatives results in a form of heavy metal poisoning, the effects of which are very similar to autism.

Though conclusive evidence one or way or another is still forthcoming, many doctors and researchers have called for the removal of heavy metals from vaccines or a slower vaccination schedule as a safety precaution until a link is proven or debunked. The state of California began a phase-out of ethyl mercury from vaccines beginning in 2000; autism diagnosis rates there have since fallen six percent. Because vaccinations are regulated at the state level, legislation regarding the issue elsewhere has been slow in coming.

Proponents of the "vaccination theory" urge parents to parse out their children´s vaccinations over the first two years. They point to a study by the Center for Disease Control indicating that slower vaccination schedules are just as effective as faster-paced regimens in preventing their respective diseases.

Treating the symptoms of autism

The Autism Society of America (ASA) is quick to point out that the word "treatment" is used in a very limited sense, owing to the diversity and severity of symptoms. Nevertheless, symptoms often improve with age and concentrated therapy, and some autistic children can grow up to lead normal, fully functional lives.

Because there is no cure for autism, doctors instead focus their treatment on helping patients manage the symptoms. Early diagnosis is important, and intensive special education programs focus on helping children overcome symptoms and to control behavior.

Medications for autism

The use of medications is hampered somewhat by the very neurology of autistic patients. Because autism sufferers possess extremely sensitive nervous systems, coming to a widespread prescription protocol is all but impossible. The ASA does not formally endorse any medications or treatment approach; instead, they recommend that each patient seek out the best treatments options for their own symptoms.

Some medications have proven successful in treating different symptoms. For example, serotonin reuptake inhibitors treat much of the obsessive-compulsive behavior and anxiety common in many patients. Common brand names of such medications include Prozac, Anafranil and Luvox.

Other anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants such as Wellbtrin, Ativan and Xanax lack formal study via-a-vis autism but may offer powerful aids to controlling behavior. However, each one carries the risk of serious side effects.

The stimulants Ritalin, Adderall, and Dexedrine have been given as a means of controlling hyperactivity in mild autistic cases. However, their dosages require constant scrutiny and frequent modulation.

Anti-psychotic medications have received extensive study over the past several decades. So far, only Risperidone has received FDA approval for treatment of adults with autism.

Nutritional and vitamin approaches to management and treatment

Many parents are now seeking alternative approaches to symptom management that include dietary supervision and the steady use of vitamins and minerals. In particular, parents are regulating their autistic child´s intake of gluten and the dairy protein casein in order to encourage strong autoimmune responses that may help curb symptoms.

Vitamins and minerals used regulate symptoms include Vitamin B-12, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Magnesium, and Colloidal Silver. Daily-recommended dosage guidelines should be strictly followed, so as to prevent overdosing of these materials.

Michael Kabel is senior staff writer for Corner Stork Baby Stop by for parenting and baby resources, unique baby gifts, baby gift baskets and baby shower favors.

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