Autism is a developmental condition that affects how people communicate and interact with the world. The condition should not be considered a disease or illness. Simply the brains of those affected are wired differently to other people.

Many parents worry about their child being autistic. It can result from misconceptions of the condition plus the societal stigma. This leaves families with feelings of humiliation, social exclusion, isolation, and this certainly shouldn’t be the case.

What is autism?

Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition that should be considered as a spectrum hence the name autistic spectrum disorder or ASD. Everyone’s experience of ASD is different ASD the condition can affect people in a variety of ways.

Autism should not be considered as a disease or abnormality. The brains of autistic people are simply wired differently.

Who gets autism?

People with ASD are born with the condition, and it stays with them lifelong.

Why ASD occurs?

We don’t fully understand. However, there appears to be a genetic link, so if you have a parent or a sibling who suffers from ASD, you’re at an increased risk. The condition is also four times more common in boys than girls.

ASD is relatively common. It’s estimated to affect around 1 in 54 people, which means around 6.5 million people are living with autism in the USA alone, with millions more worldwide. ASD doesn’t discriminate; it affects all ethnic groups, and whether you’re rich or poor, it doesn’t matter. So we can all benefit from a better understanding of the condition.

Whether the MMR vaccine causes autism?

In short – no. The MMR vaccine does not cause autism. This is a myth that stems from a debunked article published in The Lancet medical journal back in 1998. The authors reported an association between the MMR vaccine and the development of childhood ASD.

Of course, this created mass hysteria resulting in a significant reduction in vaccine uptake. Due to significant flaws in the study, the journal has since retracted this article. This sparked the development of a more robust, much larger study incorporating thousands of patients to examine any association between MMR vaccines and ASD.

The results of this research are clear – there is no association between MMR vaccines and developmental disorders such as ASD. For many of us, the bias of social media and the want to protect our children from harm will naturally mean we question the need to vaccinate. Therefore as a parent, you should make up your own decision. As parents, we should also know that bad parenting, poor diet, and viruses do not cause ASD.

What are the symptoms of ASD?

Autistic spectrum disorder, as the name suggests, is a spectrum, and everyone’s experience of autism is different. The stigma that people with autism are dumb is inaccurate. Autistic people can have any level of intelligence, some with a lower IQ and some with a remarkably high IQ.

Sometimes individuals with high functioning ASD are given the term Asperger’s syndrome. There are, however, around 30% with an intellectual disability, and 40 are non-verbal. The symptoms of ASD can be split into four groups.

Social challenges.

Individuals with ASD may have trouble developing relationships with other people. Frequently individuals will feel more comfortable being alone and lack interest in other individuals.

This can result in challenges in developing friendships. If you suffer from ASD, you may also find it more difficult to read people’s emotions. Around one in three children with ASD will also experience some social developmental regression. This means they may lose learned skills such as saying goodbye or waving.

Impaired language and communication skills.

People with ASD may have distorted or delayed speech and language development. This may also be associated with little to no eye contact, no use of gestures, and blank facial expressions.

Individuals may also unnecessarily repeat the words of others, and that’s called echolalia. Children can also have a limited imagination. As children develop, they incorporate what we call imaginative play.

People with autism often struggle with this form of open-ended, unstructured play. This lack of imagination means that people with ASD can struggle to see the world from someone else’s point of view. And this can translate into difficulties in understanding other people’s feelings and reactions.

Stereotyped or ritualistic behavior.

Some movements are commonly seen in individuals with ASD, such as hand flapping or rocking. People with ASD may seek a ritualistic day-to-day life sticking strongly to schedules and often being resistant to any change. Obsessions and compulsions are also very common.

How can ASD be diagnosed?

If you are concerned that you or your child are suffering from ASD, you should discuss your concerns with your regular doctor, health visitor, or special educational needs staff at your child’s school.

In order for a diagnosis to be made, you or your child will require a referral to a specialist autism team. Sometimes waiting times can be quite long for your first appointment. It’s likely your specialist will want to know about your child’s development, including any delayed milestones such as speech development.

Knowing how your child plays and interacts with other children is also important. Therefore your specialist may also request a report from your child’s school teacher. For adults, it’s likely the team will ask you to complete a questionnaire plus review your previous medical history.

How do we treat autism?

ASD is not a condition that can be cured as it’s due to different wiring of the brain. You are born with ASD, and the condition will continue with you throughout your life. The main goal of health professionals is to support children’s development in the best way they can.

Everyone’s experience of autism is different. Some will require little to no support throughout their childhood and will not experience any barriers in adult life, while others may require supportive care throughout their lives.

Speech and language therapy supports any developmental deficits. Amongst non-verbal patients, the facilitation of alternative methods of communication can be developed. Improved language skills in combination with social skills training can help people with ASD in social interactions.

Involvement and communication with your child’s school are also very important to ensure any additional educational needs are met. Mainstream schools can request additional funding to help support your child. This funding can be used to provide additional teaching support and even additional lessons tailored to your child’s needs.

Alternatively, specialist schools are available to give support to children with additional educational needs. The real aim here is to maximize your child’s potential. Many children and adults with ASD will also have coexisting mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Your doctor will ensure that the needs of any coexisting mental health condition are met, and sometimes, this will require the support of a psychiatrist. Families of individuals with autism should also be given the opportunity to learn more about ASD and support. Local support groups and autism organizations are often helpful.

What about prognosis?

As we’ve discussed, ASD is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition that affects an individual’s social abilities, communication skills and affects their daily routines. Everyone’s experience of ASD is different, with many needing little to no support and others requiring ongoing care throughout their lives.

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