Worry over a child developing autism is not uncommon in parents. Since autism symptoms often become apparent by a child’s third birthday, and is marked by hindered development of social and communication skills, many parents become anxious if their child does not seem to be developing properly. However, many find that a chat with other parents can help relieve their worries and fears.

Autism is a fairly common disorder, affecting one in 250 births. Males are four times more likely to develop the disorder than girls. It is thought that as many as 1.5 million Americans are autistic and similar numbers can be found worldwide. However, the numbers of people affected by autism are going up at a rate of 10 to 17% per year.

What is Autism?
Autism is a neurological disorder that affects the normal development of social interactions and communication skills in the brain. Those affected by autism have troubles communicating, both verbally and non-verbally. They also have difficulties interacting with others as well as with recreational and play activities.

Autism is one of five disorders grouped under the umbrella term Pervasive Development Disorders (PDD). Other disorders that fall under PDD include Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (a disorder that is similar to autism but is developed after two to four years of normal development), Rett’s Disorder (primarily affects girls and is characterized by a marked slow down in head growth during the first month of life as well as loss of purposeful movement of the hands and often extreme mental retardation), PDD – Not Otherwise Specified (when some, but not all, symptoms of a PDD are identified) and Asperger’s Syndrome.

Asperger Syndrome is very similar to autism. However, people affected by this disorder have normal intelligence and language development although they may not be very adept at properly using their skills. Because Asperger’s Disorder is a relatively new diagnosis and is so similar to autism, many people who have it may have been misdiagnosed as someone with high functioning autism.

Symptoms of Autism
Because autism is classified as a spectrum disorder, the range of autism symptoms can vary from mild to severe and can appear in any manner of combinations. Many experts believe that behavior typical to autistic children is actually the result of the child’s senses inability to properly work together. While treatment can significantly improve an autistic child’s behavior, the characteristics of autism will never completely disappear.

Some common behavior traits that may or may not be present in your autistic child include:
- Resistance to change
- Troubles verbalizing needs; may gesture or point instead
- Instead of normal language, repeats words or phrases spoken to him
- Prefers to be alone
- Tantrums
- Laughs, cries or seems upset for no particular reason
- Troubles interacting with others
- Aversion to cuddling
- Little or no eye contact
- Indifferent to standard learning methods
- Continued abnormal play
- Spins objects
- Unusual fondness for certain objects
- Appears hyper-sensitive or completely indifferent to pain
- Lacks significant fear of danger
- Noticeably inactive or hyperactive
- Improper development of some gross or fine motor skills
- Appears deaf despite having perfectly fine hearing

Causes of Autism
Experts have failed to identify one particular reason for autism although most accept the fact that abnormalities in the brain structure or function is the origin of the disorder. As a result, many different areas are being investigated as a possible cause including a hereditary link, genetics, and medical problems. It has been found, though, that people with certain medical disorders, like Fragile X syndrome and congenital rubella syndrome, do have a higher occurrence of autism than others.

Many parents have been hesitant about allowing their child to receive an MMR immunization after there was speculation that the vaccine caused autism. Since signs of autism often begin to appear at about the same time the shot is administered, it is not surprising that some believed there to be a connection. To date, there has been no evidence made available that conclusively shows a direct link between the vaccine and autism. However, it has also not been ruled out as a possible contributor to autism meaning that it is unknown whether the MMR shot can trigger symptoms of autism in people who were already predisposed to the disorder. While more research is needed in the area, it is strongly recommended that children continue to receive their MMR vaccine as the benefits far out weigh the risks.

Diagnosing Autism
Because children with autism can display a multitude of symptoms that may overlap with other disorders, there is no one particular diagnostic test to determine the likelihood of autism in children. Additionally, autism cannot be diagnosed in one appointment. Therefore it is important that parents and caregivers are able to give accurate accounts of a child’s behavioral development. The sooner autism can be diagnosed, the better. Studies have shown that early diagnosis and commencement of autism treatments produces significantly better results. Although early signs of autism may begin to appear between 18 and 24 months, characteristics for autism spectrum disorders commonly appear between 24 months and 6 years.

There are a variety of screening tests that may be used to help diagnose autism in your child. These include the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS), which was developed in the early 1970s, Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (CHAT), which was developed in the early 1990s for diagnosing autism in children as young as 18 months, and the Autism Screening Questionnaire, which is used for children four and older.

Autism Signs
Although autism in infants is not always apparent, there are particular behaviors that parents can look out for and should discuss with their child’s pediatrician if they notice. These signs include:

At 12 months: not babbling or cooing; fails to gesture
At 16 months: fails to say single words
At 24 months: fails to say two-word phrases by himself
At any age: loses any language or social skills

For more information on autism, visit the Autism Society of America.