Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children

What is autism spectrum disorder in children?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a
problem that affects a child’s nervous system and growth and development. It often shows
up during a child’s first 3 years of life.

Some children with ASD seem to live
in their own world. They are not interested in other children and lack social awareness.
A child with ASD focuses on following a routine that may include normal behaviors. A
child with the disorder also often has problems communicating with others. He or she may
not start speaking as soon as other children. He or she may not want to make eye contact
with other people.

ASD can keep a child from developing social skills. This is in part because a child with ASD may not be able to understand facial expressions or emotions in other people. A child with ASD may:

  • Not want to be touched
  • Want to play alone
  • Not want to change routines

A child with ASD may also repeat
movements. This might be flapping his or her hands or rocking. He or she may also have
abnormal attachments to objects. But a child with ASD may also do certain mental tasks
very well. For example, the child may be able to count or measure better than other
children. Children with ASD may do well in art or music, or be able to remember certain
things very well.

What causes ASD in a child?

Experts don’t know what causes ASD.
It may be caused by certain genes. A child with ASD may also have problems with their
brain structure or with certain chemicals in the brain. Researchers do know that ASD is
not caused by what a parent does to raise a child.

Much less often, other things that
may cause ASD include:

  • Being exposed to toxins in the
    environment before or after birth
  • Severe infections such as meningitis or encephalitis that
    result in brain damage

  • Problems during delivery
  • Infections before birth

Which children are at risk for ASD?

The disorder happens much more often in boys than girls. Four to 5 times as many boys as girls have ASD.

Certain gene disorders that run in families can raise a child’s risk for ASD. These include:

  • Fragile-X
  • Phenylketonuria (PKU)
  • Neurofibromatosis
  • Tuberous sclerosis
  • Chromosome problems

Your child may need genetic testing
to help find out which problem he or she has. The testing is done by a medical
geneticist. This is a healthcare provider with special training in genetics and
inherited problems. He or she can let you know the chances of having another child with
the gene problem. For example, PKU carries a 1 in 4 chance of happening in another
pregnancy. For tuberous sclerosis, the chances are 1 in 2.

Even when no gene problem is found,
you are at a slightly higher chance of having another child with ASD. Experts think this
is because several genes from both parents may act together to cause ASD.

What are the symptoms of ASD in a child?

Each child may have slightly different symptoms. Below are the most common symptoms of ASD.

Social symptoms

  • Has problems making eye contact with others
  • Has problems making friends or interacting with other children

Communication symptoms

  • Does not communicate well with others
  • Starts speaking at a later age than other children or doesn’t speak at all
  • When the child is able to speak,
    doesn’t use speech in social settings
  • Repeats words or phrases (echolalia) or repeats parts of dialogue from TV or movies

Behavior symptoms

  • Does repeated movements, such as rocking or flapping fingers or hands
  • May be too sensitive or less sensitive to certain things around him or her, such as lights, sounds, touch, or taste
  • Has rituals
  • Needs routines

The symptoms of ASD may look like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is ASD diagnosed in a child?

No single medical test can diagnose ASD. Healthcare providers use certain guidelines to help diagnose ASD in children before age 2. The guidelines can help diagnose the disorder early. Children diagnosed with ASD early can be treated right away.

The guidelines say that all children should be screened for ASD and other development disorders before age 2. The screening is done at well-child checkups. Children who have symptoms of development or behavior disorders will need to get more testing for ASD.

Healthcare providers look for the following problems during well-child visits before age 2:

  • No babbling, pointing, or gesturing by age 12 months
  • No single words spoken by age 16 months
  • No 2-word phrases by age 24 months, just repeating words or sounds of others
  • Loss of any language or social skills at any age
  • No eye contact at 3 to 4 months

If a child has any of the above
problems, the healthcare provider will do more screening. This will help show if your
child has ASD or another developmental disorder. Your child may need to see a healthcare
provider with special training to diagnose and treat ASD. Your child may also need these
screening tests:

  • Nervous system exam
  • Imaging tests such as CT scan, MRI, or PET scan
  • Mental health tests
  • Genetic tests to look for gene problems that cause ASD or other developmental disorders