Autism belongs to a range of developmental conditions known as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The disease is characterised by disordered information processing in the brain and may involve delays in learning basic skills and problems with communication.

A boy with autism looking out a window

According to the Association for Autism (AFA), research indicates that autism develops when defects in genes involved with brain growth and communication between neurons disrupt the normal brain development in early foetal stages. Individuals with autism share genetic traits with people who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or clinical depression.

Exact causes of autism are unknown but studies point to it having a genetic basis. In rare cases, autism has been linked to maternal exposure to German measles (rubella) or environmental toxins during pregnancy.

What are its symptoms?

Autism symptoms are usually noticed from about the age of six months old and well established by two or three. These include:

  • Social interaction impairment: difficulty relating to people, less smiling or eye contact than those with normal neural development, trouble making friends and a reduced response to social stimulus.
  • Communication impairment: this includes trouble using or understanding language, problems speaking, and difficulty understanding non-verbal communication.
  • Repetitive behaviour: this may involve a repetitive body movement like rocking or hand flapping, compulsive behaviours, resistance to change and insistence on following routines, preoccupation with certain things or displaying very limited interests.
  • Unusual eating habits
  • Poor motor skills.

How is it diagnosed?

There is no autism test. According to the AFA, an autism diagnosis relies on clinical observation of the person, looking particularly at their behaviour and communication, as well as taking a detailed developmental history into consideration.

A doctor may perform blood tests or imaging tests to rule out other causative factors. A specialist in childhood development may need to be consulted before a diagnosis is reached and they will assess to what extent the autistic traits may be affecting an individual’s ability to make sense of their world, thus determining the extent of any developmental disorder.

What are your treatment options?

No cure exists for autism as yet. Autism treatment focuses on reducing distress and associated deficits and improving quality of life. A structured environment and adherence to routines has been shown to be beneficial to children with autism.

Some practitioners advocate autism interventions to aid in development in areas where the condition inhibits them. Such interventions may include certain therapies like speech therapy or physical therapy, special education, and treatment with medication to manage symptoms such as sleep disturbance or hyperactivity. Medication may also be used to help children integrate – in school, for example – if behavioural modification therapies are insufficient.

Can it be prevented?

Until more is learned about the exact causes of autism, most cases are not preventable. Expectant mothers are advised to avoid environmental toxins, illicit drugs and alcohol during pregnancy, as well as to ensure sufficient intake of folic acid before conception and during pregnancy, as this vitamin plays an important role in foetal brain development.

It is also important for women to be vaccinated against German measles (rubella), as developing this disease while pregnant increases foetal risk of developing autism.

For more info
The Association For Autism

What to do now
Baby immunisations are available at Clicks clinics, including the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine. Stay on track with your little one's immunisations with the Clicks childhood vaccination schedule.

To make an appointment at a Clicks Clinic, call 0860 254 257 or book online at Clicks Clinics online. 

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in June 2015