The prevalence rate of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in children is now 1 in 68, according to the CDC. ASD occurs across all racial, ethic, and socioeconomic groups but is about five times more prevalent among boys (1 in 42) than girls (1 in 189). The rate of ASD has risen significantly since 2000 (1 in 150). Why is the rate of ASD increasing so rapidly?
What is Autism
Autism, now known as autism spectrum disorders (ASD), is a group of neurodevelopmental condition, which greatly impacts social interactions, communication and behavioral presentation. Although signs and symptoms can vary child-to-child, a cluster of symptoms is usually reliable in identifying the disorder. Autism can be reliably diagnosed as early as 18 months of age but typical manifestation of the disorder occurs 18 months and 3 years of age. ASD can also be diagnosed well into adulthood.
Signs and Symptoms of ASD
- No babbling by 9 months
- No pointing or gestures by 12 months
- Not responding to their name by 12 months of age
- No single words by 16 months
- Lack of pretend play by 18 months
- No two-word phrases by 24 months
- Any loss of language or social skills at any age
- Extreme difficulty in learning language
- Inappropriate response to people (lack of eye contact, doesn't like being touched/held)
- Inability or reduced ability to play cooperatively with other children
- Inability to understand other people's feelings
- Need for a rigid, highly structured routine
- Extreme hyperactivity or unusual passivity
- Aggressive or self-injurious behavior
- Repetitive body movements (hand flicking, twisting, rocking, spinning)
- Insensitivity to pain or lack of response to cold or heat
- Unusual attachment to inanimate objects
- Frequent crying and tantrums for no apparent reason
- Peculiar speech patterns
- Abnormal responses to sensations such as light, sound, and touch
How is ASD Diagnosed?
ASD is typically diagnosed by comprehensive diagnostic evaluations completed by neurodevelopmental pediatricians, developmental-behavioral pediatricians, child neurologists, psychologists, or other licensed professionals. Typically, professionals will utilize screening tools and more exact diagnostic tool such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), Autism Diagnostic Interview (ADI-R), Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS), or the Gilliam Autism Rating Scale (GARS-2). The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistic Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) provides standardized criteria to help guide a professional diagnosing the disorder.
Although current diagnostic methods are fairly reliable with identifying ASD, a new study found fMRI's to be highly accurate (97%) in identifying the disorder by detecting malfunctions within neurological activation patterns associated with social interaction concepts. This study, published in December 2014, found fMRIs can identify a clear difference between neural activation patterns (brain activity) between a neurotypical adult and a person with ASD when such individuals are exposed to social interaction concepts. The tests also found that fMRIs are capable of identifying the degree to which the disorder impacts the individual's representation of 'self' and behavior (face processing).
How is ASD Treated?
Early intervention is key in ameliorating the impact of ASD on a child. Doctors are trained to frequently use screening tools to detect ASD as early as possible. Research shows early intervention (birth to 36 months) can significantly improve a child's development. Early intervention methods typically include services such as occupational therapy, sensory integration therapy, speech therapy, and applied behavior analysis. Treatment may also include alternative methods such as dietary approach and possibly medication. It should be noted no medication has the ability to cure or even treat the main symptoms of ASD but may be used to treat related symptoms such as hyperactivity.
Scientists have conducted new research on the use of oxytocin in treating individuals with autism and have found promising results. A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study found that the use of oxytocin nasal spray increased participants' performance in emotional recognition tests. Another study that oxytocin is not lacking in children with ASD.
Oxytocin, more commonly known as the love hormone, is produced by the hypothalamus and is instrumental in brain development. It has a strong role in creating healthy bonds between attachment figures and is essential to development of feelings of trust and empathy.
Causes and Factors of ASD
Scientists have not found a singular cause of ASD but we have learned many factors likely contribute to the development of ASD, including biological, genetic, and environmental factors. Scientists agree that genes are likely one of the risk factors; children who have a sibling with ASD are at a higher risk of developing the disorder. Pregnant mothers taking drugs like valproic acid and thalidomide have an increased risk of having a child with ASD. Also, children born to older parents have an increased risk of developing ASD. Researchers are currently working on studies to better understand the risks, causes, and factors of ASD.
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