April is Autism Awareness Month. The aim of this month is educate the public about autism. Autism is a complex mental condition and developmental disability, characterized by difficulties in the way a person communicates and interacts with other people. Autism can be be present from birth or form during early childhood (typically within the first three years). Autism is a lifelong developmental disability with no single known cause.
People with autism are classed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the terms autism and ASD are often used interchangeably. A wide spectrum disorder, people will autism have set of symptoms unique to themselves; no two people are the same. There is no known single cause of autism, but increased awareness and early diagnosis/intervention and access to appropriate services/supports lead to significantly improved outcomes.
Some of the behaviors associated with autism include delayed learning of language; difficulty making eye contact or holding a conversation; difficulty with executive functioning, which relates to reasoning and planning; narrow, intense interests; poor motor skills’ and sensory sensitivities. The diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder is applied based on analysis of all behaviors and their severity. When parents or support providers become concerned that their child is not following a typical developmental course, they turn to experts, psychologists, educators and medical professionals, for a diagnosis.
There is no known single cause for autism spectrum disorder, but it is generally accepted that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function. Brain scans show differences in the shape and structure of the brain in children with autism compared to in neurotypical children. Researchers do not know the exact cause of autism but are investigating a number of theories, including the links among heredity, genetics and medical problems.
Other researchers are investigating the possibility that under certain conditions, a cluster of unstable genes may interfere with brain development, resulting in autism. Still other researchers are investigating problems during pregnancy or delivery as well as environmental factors such as viral infections, metabolic imbalances and exposure to chemicals. Autism tends to occur more frequently than expected among individuals who have certain medical conditions, including fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, congenital rubella syndrome and untreated phenylketonuria (PKU). Some harmful substances ingested during pregnancy also have been associated with an increased risk of autism.
The demands of living with a person with autism are great, and families frequently experience high levels of stress. Parents have to deal with behaviors and pursue treatments while also planning for the future; siblings might feel embarrassed or overlooked; and it’s important for the whole family to stay involved in the community. Recognizing and preparing for the challenges in store will make a tremendous difference to everyone involved, including parents, siblings, grandparents, extended family and friends. The uniqueness of each person with autism makes the experience of living with autism different for each family. But there are some consistent themes or issues that most families should be aware of to be able to provide the best support to the individual and to family members.