A mother struggles to comfort a toddler who won’t stop screaming. A father wistfully holds a football as he watches his son stare into space, wondering if he will ever play with other children. Two young parents sit in a doctor’s office stunned, as they are informed their child will face a lifetime of challenges. These are scenes playing out all over the world as cases of autism spectrum disorder are on the rise.
The diagnosis of autism often brings more questions than answers. Did I do something to cause this? If not, what did cause this? What can I do for my child? There is also the feeling of disappointment, as everyone has expectations when starting a family. Knowing that a child is going to have challenges is overwhelming, and it is essential for parents to know they did not cause it nor are they alone. There are therapies to assist with communicating and behavior control, along with good support groups.
What Is Autism?
Each case of autism is unique, and cannot be simply summed up. The spectrum is inclusive of a group classified as Pervasive Development Disorders, or delays in social and communication skills. The phrase was first coined in 1912 by Dr. Paul Eugen Bleuler, the Swiss psychiatrist credited for pioneering previously unidentified mental health issues such as schizophrenia. The word comes from the Greek autos, or “self” and ismos meaning “state of being”. Children with autism are, in essence, absorbed completely with themselves and create their own reality. This detachment is one of the main obstacles in getting them to interact and communicate.
Early detection is key in getting therapies and education started. Symptoms to look for in infants would be such things as not smiling by six months, lack of babbling or gestures by one year as well as excessive inconsolable screaming that goes beyond “colic”. Later symptoms may include extreme reactions to bothersome lights and sounds, resistance to touch, and a lack of understanding feelings of others. There are speech and development delays, as well as a tendency to focus on part of an object rather than its entirety. Regression of developmental skills is a red flag as well. * There are autism screening quizzes online that will aid in what questions need to be asked.
Initial studies focusing on causes of autism were based in a lot of misinformation. Dr. Leo Kanner began a lot of the research into autism as we recognize it today, however many of his theories were particularly unfair to mothers. He authored a paper in 1949 that blamed the disorder on women who were too cold and unloving to create a bond with their child. This in part led to the stigma that remained for years of parents getting the blame, which led to unnecessary guilt.
These early studies had many flaws, however it did pave the way for further research. It is now known that there are a multitude of factors to consider when looking for a root cause, including the fact that not all cases of autism are alike. Some children are severely challenged while others have trouble interacting, but function normally. The common link shared is they live in a world unto themselves.
What Causes Autism?
It is the nature of a good parent to ask “Why?” Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer. NO evidence shows that it is anything the parent has done wrong. The earlier studies that theorized uncaring mothers as the root cause were based on incomplete information and should not be considered.
A few things that have been researched as far as potential causes for autism include genetics, environment and biological hazards (both man-made and naturally occurring), possible immunological factors and gestational infections. None have offered a definitive root cause, but the studies themselves have brought some interesting points to consider.
Boys outnumber girls in cases of autism on an average of 3 to 1, which may have a connection with an important genetic discovery. There are 23 pairs of chromosomes in humans, and chromosome 17 has been discovered to contain a gene known as CACNA1G in some cases of autism. Further research has shown that this gene is more prevalent in boys than girls, and has come to be known as the “autism risk gene”. There are ongoing studies into the connection of genetics and autism, including the possibility of each case having its own unique genetic structure. This, combined with undetermined environmental factors may make a child more at risk. It also may possibly explain why the risk for girls is lower than boys.
If there is a genetic connection, then what ‘triggers’ it? Again, this is an unknown. Multiple factors have been researched, including the rubella virus, commonly known as German Measles. A rise of autistic cases in the 1970’s was linked to outbreaks of rubella. The MMR shot (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) has all but eradicated the disease, however the fact that vaccines contain components of the viruses they are intended to protect against did bring enough questions to study the risks. The concern about this vaccine being a possible trigger for autism has sporadic research backing it up and several studies refuting any link whatsoever. Monitoring that has been done since 1998 has shown no conclusive evidence for vaccines to be a trigger for autism, although many are still not convinced there isn’t a connection.
Another concern was thimerosal, a preservative used for vaccines, which contains the neurotoxin mercury. Studies have shown exposure to mercury can delay brain development. The thimerosal link has never been proven, however safer vaccine preservatives are now used. More studies are being done about neurotoxin exposure and how it relates to the rise in autism diagnosis.
What Parents Can Do About Autism
The challenge is how to treat autism. There is no “cure”, however there are many therapies that, when introduced early, can improve cognitive skills and communication. Many special needs teachers and psychologists are using Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). The child is taught words through picture cards, which are exchanged with a communication partner (usually the teacher or therapist) who honors the correct picture appropriate to what is being requested. Many autistic children thrive in good educational settings with teachers and therapists who care about each individual child. Sensory therapy is used to help maintain control of the senses that are often heightened in cases of autism. Computer programs have been designed to assist in communication and learning. Many parents have found through daily monitoring that diet has an effect on some behaviors and have removed certain foods that seem to be a trigger.
The two most important things a parent in this situation can do is love the child and educate themselves. Children with autism do not respond to love in the typical way, and this can be heartbreaking. Listening to ear-shattering screams and constantly having to pick up messes made from the destruction of impulsive behavior can wear on the nerves and bring down family morale. Many find themselves as single parents when the other one is unable to deal with the challenges. A good support group is essential, and there are organizations set up to assist parents of autistic children.
For more information on treatments, support groups, and updates check the Autism Speaks website at http://www.autismspeaks.org
*Autism screening quizzes online that will aid in what questions need to be asked. http://pediatrics.about.com/od/autism/l/bl_autism.htm
Written by Angela Sangster, Copyright 2011 HonestInformation.com
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