Presentation, Signs, and Symptoms
Autism refers to a spectrum of neurodevelopmental disorders whose symptoms start appearing in early childhood and which involves characteristic or repetitive autistic behavior accompanied by difficulty in interacting and communicating socially. The signs and symptoms of this disorder appear at various stages of childhood in various individuals. Autistic children often tend to remain socially isolated, they remain preoccupied most of the time and avoid eye contact with other people including their own parents. They also exhibit repetitive behavior like constant flapping of the arms and engaging in rocking motions when stationary. Autistic children also have highly varying verbal skills ranging from complete control over language to complete inability to speak. They also have a poor ability to comprehend non-verbal means of communication like body language and voice tones. These children tend narrow down their interests on certain objects and subjects. They also exhibit very little emotional attachment to people in their surroundings and appear to live in their own world, detached from the social norms.
Possible Environmental and Genetic Causes
Autism is believed to be caused by the influence of both environmental and genetic factors. However, till date no specific cause has been assigned to this disorder. Diagnosis of autism has detected that in autistic patients certain areas of the brain fail to connect properly to other areas which is attributed to developmental anomalies that occur in the brain prior to the birth of the child. Often prematurely born children have exhibited higher frequency of autism. Autism is also considered to have a familial linkage as in the case of twins, where, when one individual is affected, the other has a 35 to 95% chance of being autistic. In some cases, families with autistic children have also been found to have members affected by other mental disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, at a frequency greater than the average case. Parents of children with autism have, in certain cases, also been found to exhibit some type of mild but unusual behavior. Though familial studies have pointed towards heredity as one of the causes of autism, a specific gene responsible for autism has not yet been identified conclusively. Sporadic mutations in the egg or sperm cells of the autistic child’s parents before fertilization or in the zygote after fertilization could also be responsible for autism in cases where there is no familial linkage to the disease.
Frequency of Occurrence
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect boys 4 to 5 times more than girls and affects individuals irrespective of their socioeconomic level, race and ethnicity. In the United States, 1 in 66 children are reported to have an autism spectrum disorder, while across the world 1 in 1,000 children exhibit signs of autism spectrum disorders. As per 2013 estimates, 21.7 million individuals across the globe were affected by autism spectrum disorders. There has also been an increase in reported cases of autism spectrum disordersacross the globe, which could be either due to an actual increase in incidence of the disease or an increase in reporting of the disease due to the availability of more sophisticated diagnostic tools or increased awareness among the general public regarding the disease.
As of yet, there is no cure for autism and the best way of treatment involves the execution of behavioral and interventionist therapies that allow the child to overcome social inhibitions and avoid unusual behavior that are characteristic of the disease. Early intervention often brings massive changes in the social and verbal skills of an autistic child. All these procedures require highly skilled professionals who can understand the specific needs of every autistic child. Though medications cannot cure most of the primary symptoms of autism, it can be used to alleviate symptoms of psychological stress, depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders, which often accompany the other symptoms of autism.
Support and Advocacy for the Autistic
Autistic children are often shunned by their peers and the society as a whole due to their apparently different behavior. However, the current spread of awareness is exhibiting a marked change in people’s perception of the disease resulting in a wider acceptance of autistic children as part of mainstream society. April 2nd of each year is celebrated as "World Autism Awareness Day", and several other worldwide events encouraging the spread of awareness about autism also takes place each year. The fact that autistic children might be quite talented has been proved by several cases where autistic individuals have exhibited exceptional talents and earned themselves respectful positions in various fields of work. The Oscar winning Hollywood movie, the Rain Man, revolved around the story of an autistic individual with incredible talents.