What Are the Autism Spectrum Disorders?
The autism spectrum disorders are more common in the pediatric population than are some better known disorders such as diabetes, spinal bifida, or Down syndrome.2 Prevalence studies have been done in several states and also in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Asia. Prevalence estimates range from 2 to 6 per 1,000 children. This wide range of prevalence points to a need for earlier and more accurate screening for the symptoms of ASD. The earlier the disorder is diagnosed, the sooner the child can be helped through treatment interventions. Pediatricians, family physicians, daycare providers, teachers, and parents may initially dismiss signs of ASD, optimistically thinking the child is just a little slow and will "catch up." Although early intervention has a dramatic impact on reducing symptoms and increasing a child's ability to grow and learn new skills, it is estimated that only 50 percent of children are diagnosed before kindergarten.
All children with ASD demonstrate deficits in 1) social interaction, 2) verbal and nonverbal communication, and 3) repetitive behaviors or interests. In addition, they will often have unusual responses to sensory experiences, such as certain sounds or the way objects look. Each of these symptoms runs the gamut from mild to severe. They will present in each individual child differently. For instance, a child may have little trouble learning to read but exhibit extremely poor social interaction. Each child will display communication, social, and behavioral patterns that are individual but fit into the overall diagnosis of ASD.
Children with ASD do not follow the typical patterns of child development. In some children, hints of future problems may be apparent from birth. In most cases, the problems in communication and social skills become more noticeable as the child lags further behind other children the same age. Some other children start off well enough. Oftentimes between 12 and 36 months old, the differences in the way they react to people and other unusual behaviors become apparent. Some parents report the change as being sudden, and that their children start to reject people, act strangely, and lose language and social skills they had previously acquired. In other cases, there is a plateau, or leveling, of progress so that the difference between the child with autism and other children the same age becomes more noticeable.
Although children with ASD usually appear physically normal and have good muscle control, odd repetitive motions may set them off from other children. These behaviors might be extreme and highly apparent or more subtle. Some children and older individuals spend a lot of time repeatedly flapping their arms or walking on their toes. Some suddenly freeze in position.
As children, they might spend hours lining up their cars and trains in a certain way, rather than using them for pretend play. If someone accidentally moves one of the toys, the child may be tremendously upset. ASD children need, and demand, absolute consistency in their environment. A slight change in any routinein mealtimes, dressing, taking a bath, going to school at a certain time and by the same route can be extremely disturbing. Perhaps order and sameness lend some stability in a world of confusion.
Repetitive behavior sometimes takes the form of a persistent, intense preoccupation. For example, the child might be obsessed with learning all about vacuum cleaners, train schedules, or lighthouses. Often there is great interest in numbers, symbols, or science topics.
Problems That May Accompany ASD
Sensory problems. When children's perceptions are accurate, they can learn from what they see, feel, or hear. On the other hand, if sensory information is faulty, the child's experiences of the world can be confusing. Many ASD children are highly attuned or even painfully sensitive to certain sounds, textures, tastes, and smells. Some children find the feel of clothes touching their skin almost unbearable. Some sounds a vacuum cleaner, a ringing telephone, a sudden storm, even the sound of waves lapping the shoreline will cause these children to cover their ears and scream.
In ASD, the brain seems unable to balance the senses appropriately. Some ASD children are oblivious to extreme cold or pain. An ASD child may fall and break an arm, yet never cry. Another may bash his head against a wall and not wince, but a light touch may make the child scream with alarm.
Mental retardation. Many children with ASD have some degree of mental impairment. When tested, some areas of ability may be normal, while others may be especially weak. For example, a child with ASD may do well on the parts of the test that measure visual skills but earn low scores on the language subtests.
Seizures. One in four children with ASD develops seizures, often starting either in early childhood or adolescence.4 Seizures, caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain, can produce a temporary loss of consciousness (a "blackout"), a body convulsion, unusual movements, or staring spells. Sometimes a contributing factor is a lack of sleep or a high fever. An EEG (electroencephalogram—recording of the electric currents developed in the brain by means of electrodes applied to the scalp) can help confirm the seizure's presence.
In most cases, seizures can be controlled by a number of medicines called "anticonvulsants." The dosage of the medication is adjusted carefully so that the least possible amount of medication will be used to be effective.
Fragile X syndrome. This disorder is the most common inherited form of mental retardation. It was so named because one part of the X chromosome has a defective piece that appears pinched and fragile when under a microscope. Fragile X syndrome affects about two to five percent of people with ASD. It is important to have a child with ASD checked for Fragile X, especially if the parents are considering having another child. For an unknown reason, if a child with ASD also has Fragile X, there is a one-in-two chance that boys born to the same parents will have the syndrome.5 Other members of the family who may be contemplating having a child may also wish to be checked for the syndrome.
Tuberous Sclerosis. Tuberous sclerosis is a rare genetic disorder that causes benign tumors to grow in the brain as well as in other vital organs. It has a consistently strong association with ASD. One to 4 percent of people with ASD also have tuberous sclerosis.6
The Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorders
Although there are many concerns about labeling a young child with an ASD, the earlier the diagnosis of ASD is made, the earlier needed interventions can begin. Evidence over the last 15 years indicates that intensive early intervention in optimal educational settings for at least 2 years during the preschool years results in improved outcomes in most young children with ASD.2
In evaluating a child, clinicians rely on behavioral characteristics to make a diagnosis. Some of the characteristic behaviors of ASD may be apparent in the first few months of a child's life, or they may appear at any time during the early years. For the diagnosis, problems in at least one of the areas of communication, socialization, or restricted behavior must be present before the age of 3. The diagnosis requires a two-stage process. The first stage involves developmental screening during "well child" check-ups; the second stage entails a comprehensive evaluation by a multidisciplinary team.7
A "well child" check-up should include a developmental screening test. If your child's pediatrician does not routinely check your child with such a test, ask that it be done. Your own observations and concerns about your child's development will be essential in helping to screen your child.7 Reviewing family videotapes, photos, and baby albums can help parents remember when each behavior was first noticed and when the child reached certain developmental milestones.
Several screening instruments have been developed to quickly gather information about a child's social and communicative development within medical settings. Among them are the Checklist of Autism in Toddlers (CHAT),8 the modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT),9 the Screening Tool for Autism in Two-Year-Olds (STAT),10 and the Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ)11 (for children 4 years of age and older).
Some screening instruments rely solely on parent responses to a questionnaire, and some rely on a combination of parent report and observation. Key items on these instruments that appear to differentiate children with autism from other groups before the age of 2 include pointing and pretend play. Screening instruments do not provide individual diagnosis but serve to assess the need for referral for possible diagnosis of ASD. These screening methods may not identify children with mild ASD, such as those with high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome.
During the last few years, screening instruments have been devised to screen for Asperger syndrome and higher functioning autism. The Autism Spectrum Screening Questionnaire (ASSQ),12 the Australian Scale for Asperger's Syndrome,13 and the most recent, the Childhood Asperger Syndrome Test (CAST),14 are some of the instruments that are reliable for identification of school-age children with Asperger syndrome or higher functioning autism. These tools concentrate on social and behavioral impairments in children without significant language delay.
If, following the screening process or during a routine "well child" check-up, your child's doctor sees any of the possible indicators of ASD, further evaluation is indicated.
Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation
The second stage of diagnosis must be comprehensive in order to accurately rule in or rule out an ASD or other developmental problem. This evaluation may be done by a multidisciplinary team that includes a psychologist, a neurologist, a psychiatrist, a speech therapist, or other professionals who diagnose children with ASD.
Customarily, an expert diagnostic team has the responsibility of thoroughly evaluating the child, assessing the child's unique strengths and weaknesses, and determining a formal diagnosis. The team will then meet with the parents to explain the results of the evaluation.
Although parents may have been aware that something was not "quite right" with their child, when the diagnosis is given, it is a devastating blow. At such a time, it is hard to stay focused on asking questions. But while members of the evaluation team are together is the best opportunity the parents will have to ask questions and get recommendations on what further steps they should take for their child. Learning as much as possible at this meeting is very important, but it is helpful to leave this meeting with the name or names of professionals who can be contacted if the parents have further questions.
When your child has been evaluated and diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, you may feel inadequate to help your child develop to the fullest extent of his or her ability. As you begin to look at treatment options and at the types of aid available for a child with a disability, you will find out that there is help for you. It is going to be difficult to learn and remember everything you need to know about the resources that will be most helpful. Write down everything. If you keep a notebook, you will have a foolproof method of recalling information. Keep a record of the doctors' reports and the evaluation your child has been given so that his or her eligibility for special programs will be documented. Learn everything you can about special programs for your child; the more you know, the more effectively you can advocate.
There is no single best treatment package for all children with ASD. One point that most professionals agree on is that early intervention is important; another is that most individuals with ASD respond well to highly structured, specialized programs.
Before you make decisions on your child's treatment, you will want to gather information about the various options available. Learn as much as you can, look at all the options, and make your decision on your child's treatment based on your child's needs. You may want to visit public schools in your area to see the type of program they offer to special needs children.
As soon as a child's disability has been identified, instruction should begin. Effective programs will teach early communication and social interaction skills. In children younger than 3 years, appropriate interventions usually take place in the home or a child care center. These interventions target specific deficits in learning, language, imitation, attention, motivation, compliance, and initiative of interaction. Included are behavioral methods, communication, occupational and physical therapy along with social play interventions. Often the day will begin with a physical activity to help develop coordination and body awareness; children string beads, piece puzzles together, paint, and participate in other motor skills activities. At snack time the teacher encourages social interaction and models how to use language to ask for more juice. The children learn by doing. Working with the children are students, behavioral therapists, and parents who have received extensive training. In teaching the children, positive reinforcement is used.21
Children older than 3 years usually have school-based, individualized, special education. The child may be in a segregated class with other autistic children or in an integrated class with children without disabilities for at least part of the day. Different localities may use differing methods but all should provide a structure that will help the children learn social skills and functional communication. In these programs, teachers often involve the parents, giving useful advice in how to help their child use the skills or behaviors learned at school when they are at home.22
During middle and high school years, instruction will begin to address such practical matters as work, community living, and recreational activities. This should include work experience, using public transportation, and learning skills that will be important in community living.23
All through your child's school years, you will want to be an active participant in his or her education program. Collaboration between parents and educators is essential in evaluating your child's progress.