- Psychological Issues
Autism, also called autistic disorder, appears in early childhood, usually before age 3 (National Institutes of Health, 2001). Autism prevents children and adolescents from interacting normally with other people and affects almost every aspect of their social and psychological development.
Autism has a wide variety of characteristics ranging in intensity from mild to severe. One child with autism does not behave like another child with the same diagnosis. children and adolescents with autism typically:
In addition to these characteristics, some children with autism experience hypersensitivity to hearing, touch, smell, or taste. Symptoms of autism can be seen in early infancy, but the condition also may appear after months of normal development. In most cases, however, it is not possible to identify a specific event that triggers the disorder.
Studies estimate that as many as 12 in every 10,000 children have autism or a related condition (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999). Autism is three times more common in boys than in girls (National Institutes of Health, 2001).
researchers are unsure about what causes autism. Several studies suggest that autism might be caused by a combination of biological or environmental factors, or both, including viral exposure before birth, a problem with the immune system, or genetics. Many recently published scientific investigations have examined the possible connection between autism and the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. At this time, though, the available data do not appear to support a causal link.
Studies of families and twins suggest a genetic basis for the disorder. It is important for scientists to find the genes responsible for autism, if any, because this knowledge would give physicians new tools to diagnose the disorder and help scientists develop gene-based therapies.
Some studies have found that the brains of people with autism may function differently from those that are considered “normal.” research suggests that an abnormal slowing down of brain development before birth may cause autism. Studies also are looking at how autism-related problems in brain development may affect behavior later in childhood. For example, some researchers are investigating the ways in which infants with autism process information and how the disorder may lead to poor development of social skills, knowledge, and awareness.
Chemicals in the brain also may play a role in autism. As a normal brain develops, the level of serotonin, a chemical found in the brain, declines. In some children with autism, however, serotonin levels do not decline. Researchers are investigating whether this happens only to children with autism or whether other factors are involved.
Since brain development can be influenced during early childhood, the treatment of autism has a greater chance of success when initiated as early as possible. In addition, when children with autism are treated early, the cost of long-term care may be reduced. Services and treatments that may benefit children and adolescents with autism and their families include:
When services are started soon after a child is diagnosed with autism, the child’s language, social, and academic skills and abilities may be greatly improved. On the other hand, some children and adolescents do not respond well to treatment or may experience negative side effects from autism medications. Recent data suggest that some of the newer antipsychotic drugs may have fewer side effects than conventional drugs, but more studies are needed before experts can determine any possible safety advantages over traditional treatments.
Parents or other caregivers concerned about a child who shows symptoms of autism should:
People who are not satisfied with the mental health care they receive should discuss their concerns with the provider, ask for information, and/or seek help from other sources.