Speaking of autism

Autism is a word today that still leaves people

with many unanswered questions. Many aren’t

sure how to really describe it; some think

that their children have been misunderstood

and misdiagnosed; and some wonder if more

can’t be done to help those who have this


I know that Autism Speaks, a very

informative website set up to give answers

and information on the topic has been very

helpful to many; so this week I want to give

some insight into autism; but encourage you

to visit the website as it does have a wealth of

information on offer.

What is autism? What is autism

spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and

autism are both general terms for a group

of complex disorders of brain development.

These disorders are characterized, in varying

degrees, by difficulties in social interaction,

verbal and non-verbal communication and

repetitive behaviours. With the May 2013

publication of the DSM-V diagnostic manual,

all autism disorders were merged into one

umbrella diagnosis of ASD.

Previously, they were recognized as

distinct subtypes, including autistic disorder,

childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive

developmental disorder-not otherwise

specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger


ASD can be associated

with intellectual disability,

difficulties in motor

coordination, and

attention and physical

health issues such as

sleep and gastrointestinal

disturbances. Some

persons with ASD excel

in visual skills, music,

maths and art.

Autism appears to

have its roots in very

early brain development.

However, the most

obvious signs of autism

and symptoms of autism

tend to emerge between

two and three years of

age. Autism Speaks continues to fund

research on effective methods for earlier

diagnosis, as early intervention with proven

behavioural therapies can improve outcomes.

What causes autism?

We now know that there is no one cause

of autism, just as there is no one type of

autism. Over the last five years, scientists have

identified a number of rare gene changes, or

mutations, associated with autism. A small

number of these are sufficient to cause autism

by themselves. Most cases of autism, however,

appear to be by a combination of autism risk

genes and environmental factors influencing

early brain development.

In the presence of a genetic predisposition

to autism, a number of non-genetic or

“environmental” stresses appear to further

increase a child’s risk. The clearest evidence

of these autism risk factors involves events

before and during birth. They include

advanced parental age at time of conception

(both mum and dad), maternal illness during

pregnancy and certain difficulties during

birth, particularly those involving periods of

oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain. It is

important to keep in mind that these factors,

by themselves, do not cause autism. Rather,

in combination with genetic risk factors, they

appear to modestly increase risk.

A growing body of research suggests that

a woman can reduce her risk of having a

child with autism by taking prenatal vitamins

containing folic acid and/or eating a diet rich

in folic acid (at least 600 mcg a day) during the

months before and after conception.

What does it mean to be on the


Each individual with autism is unique.

Many of those on the autism spectrum have

exceptional abilities in visual skills, music

and academic skills. About 40 per cent have

average to above average intellectual abilities.

Indeed, many people on the spectrum take

deserved pride in their distinctive abilities

and “atypical” ways of viewing the world.

Others with autism have significant disability

and are unable to live independently. About

25 percent of individuals with ASD are

nonverbal but can learn to communicate

using other means. Autism Speaks

mission is to improve the lives of all those

on the autism spectrum. For some, this

means the development and delivery of

more effective treatments that can address

significant challenges in communication and

physical health. For others, it means increasing

acceptance, respect and support.

Learn the signs of autism and some

red flags

• No big smiles or other warm, joyful

expressions by six months or thereafter.

• No back and forth sharing of sounds,

smiles or other facial expressions by nine


• No babbling by 12 months.

• No back and forth gestures, such as

pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12


• No words by 16 months.

• No meaningful, two-word phrases (not

including imitating or repeating) by 24 months.

• Any loss of speech, babbling or social

skills at any age.

How is autism treated?

Each child or adult with autism is

unique and, so, each autism intervention

plan should be tailored to address specific

needs. Intervention can involve behavioural

treatments, medicines or both. Many persons

with autism have additional medical conditions

such as sleep disturbance, seizures and

gastrointestinal (GI) distress. Addressing these

conditions can improve attention, learning and

related behaviors

Typically, different interventions and

supports become appropriate as a child

develops and acquires social and learning

skills. As children with autism enter school,

for example, they may benefit from targeted

social skills training and specialized approaches

to teaching. Adolescents with autism can

benefit from transition services that promote

a successful maturation into independence and

employment opportunities of adulthood.

For more information on autism, please

visit www.autismspeaks.org

(Bonnie Leonce is a sign language

interpreter with an Associate of Arts

degree in interpreting training.

Email bonnie.leonce@gmail.com)

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