Autism is a complex and often misunderstood disorder. In this post, you'll learn what autism is, as well as the causes and risk factors and how it affects family members. We'll also cover the signs to look for in your child, and why early intervention is important.
What is autism?
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects how a person learns, communicates, and interacts with others.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, and those on the spectrum will each have their own unique strengths and challenges. The way autism affects a person’s ability to learn, perceive the world, and interact with others, can range from above average to severely low functioning.
Some people with ASD will need support in all areas of their daily lives, while others can live independently. Other challenges may include sensory sensitivities, sleep disorders, mental health challenges, and gastrointestinal disorders.
Reported by the Centers for Disease Control in 2021, approximately 1 in 44 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism.
Autism affects almost 4 times as many boys as girls. Almost half of all people with ASD are nonverbal (40%), while 31% of autistic children are intellectually disabled.
Previously considered different autism diagnoses, these four - autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome - are now all considered part of autism spectrum disorder.
ASD is considered to be wide-spectrum, meaning that no two individuals with autism will demonstrate the same symptoms. Further, the signs and behaviors associated with autism may fluctuate.
There is no cure for autism, and early intervention provides the most benefits to a child’s health and development.
What are some of the indicators of autism in a child?
Parents may notice signs of autism in the years before a child’s third birthday. Though these indicators often progress slowly, some autistic children experience regression around their communication and social skills even after reaching developmental milestones on time.
Many children show signs of autism within the first year, and it’s important to know what to look for. Professional evaluation is important, so be sure to visit with your child’s healthcare providers regularly.
The signs of autism will vary from child to child, but may include:
- loss of communication skills shown earlier
- repetitive actions such as spinning, or flapping of arms
- avoiding affection
- language development delays
- lack of eye contact or facial expression
- intense reaction to sound, smell, taste, or light
- preference for playing alone
Remember, not all children or adults with autism will display the same symptoms.
At regular appointments in the first three years, your child’s healthcare providers will screen for signs of autism, and ask about your family’s medical history.
While there is no one cause of autism, we know that genetics do play a role.
Is autism genetic?
Due to its complex nature, and the myriad of symptoms, autism spectrum disorder likely has many causes. Researchers have determined that both genetics and environment likely play a role.
Geneticists believe several different genes are involved in autism spectrum disorder. Genetic factors are estimated to contribute up to 80% to the risk of developing autism.
The risk from gene mutations, in addition to environmental risk factors, determine the likelihood of a child developing autism spectrum disorder.
In some children, autism is diagnosed in addition to other genetic disorders, such as fragile X syndrome or Rett syndrome.
Scientists theorize some genetic mutations seem to be inherited, while others occur spontaneously.
Autism spectrum disorder remains a complicated area of research. For now, researchers believe that autism appears to develop from both genetic and environmental factors and certain risk factors have been uncovered.
Increased risks that your child will have autism
Researchers continue to study the causes and risk factors for autism, but as of now, there remains no one cause for autism.
There are some risk factors that appear involved, however. These may include:
- premature birth before 26 weeks
- advanced age of either parent
- low birth weight
- other disorders such as fragile X syndrome or Rett syndrome
- pregnancies spaced less than a year apart
- heavy metal and environmental toxin exposure
- poor nutrition and lack of folic acid during pregnancy
- diabetes, obesity or preeclampsia during pregnancy
- family history of autism
As discussed above, autism does tend to run in families. Parents who have a child with ASD have a 2 to 18% chance that their second child will also have ASD. Identical twins have at least a 35% chance that both will be diagnosed with autism.
Some research shows no correlation between vaccines and autism.
Research into autism and brain biology is ongoing. Research teams are working to develop treatments and understand the ways to improve quality of life for a person with autism.
The earlier autism is diagnosed, the better it is for the child. To that end, research into prenatal detection is being done.
Can autism be detected during pregnancy?
As no single cause for autism has yet been determined, it is difficult to screen for the disorder during pregnancy during genetic testing.
Researchers are working to create a reliable way of testing for indicators of autism in a developing fetus.
In February 2022, a new study by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Soroka Medical Center has found that a prenatal ultrasound in the second trimester can identify early signs of autism spectrum disorder.
Researchers from the Azrieli National Centre for Autism and Neurodevelopment Research concluded that a routine ultrasound could detect autism.
In the study, 30% of infants who had anomalies in the heart, kidneys, and head developed ASD at a rate three times higher than infants without these complications. Further research studies are needed to understand how to diagnose autism during pregnancy.
There is evidence pointing to genetic and environmental factors while in utero that can influence autism. And yet there is minimal data on abnormalities in fetuses who later grow into children with autism.
“Prenatal ultrasound is an excellent tool to study abnormal fetal development as it is frequently used to monitor fetal growth and identify fetal anomalies throughout pregnancy,” the researchers commented.
A previous study of the Centre found early diagnosis and treatment for autism increased social skills in children by three times as much. Prenatal diagnosis could mean a course of treatment could begin at birth rather than years later.
If you believe your child may have autism, speak with your child’s healthcare provider right away. Autism can be diagnosed as early as age two, and there are many benefits to early intervention for your child.