Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior. The most severe form of ASD is autistic disorder (also known as autism or classical ASD). Other conditions along the autism spectrum disorder may include milder forms of Asperger’s syndrome, as well as childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorders not otherwise specified.
Males are four times more likely to have an ASD than females, but the disorder occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and affects every age group, although it varies in character and severity from one individual to another. It’s estimated that 1 out of 88 children age 8 will have an autism spectrum disorder.
The scientific community is not certain about what causes autism, but it’s likely that both genetics and environment are involved. Some genes associated with the disorder have been already identified and studies showed that people with ASD have irregularities in several regions of the brain. It’s also possible that ASD is related with abnormal levels of serotonin or other neurotransmitters in the brain.
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The trademark feature of ASD is impaired social interaction. Even during infancy, a baby with ASD may be unresponsive to people or focus so intently on one item that others are excluded. Sometimes, a child with ASD may seem to be normally developing and then become unexpectedly indifferent to social engagement.
Avoiding direct eye contact and failing to respond to their own name are occurrences common in children with autism. Their lack of social acknowledgement makes it difficult for them to interpret what others are thinking or feeling, through cues such as voice tone or facial expressions.
Lots of kids of autism spectrum disorder engage in repetitive movements like rocking and twirling, sometimes even in self-abusive behavior as biting or head-banging. It’s hard for children with ASD to connect and play actively with other children.
So far, there is no cure for Autism spectrum disorder, but therapies and behavioral interventions can ease specific symptoms and lead to significant improvements in behavior over time. A sound treatment plan coordinates therapies and interventions that meet the specific needs of each patient. Behavioral interventions usually consist of intensive skill-oriented training sessions, where therapists try to help children to develop social and language skills.
Some medications can be prescribed to treat specific symptoms, like anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorders. In cases of severe behavioral problems, antipsychotic drugs can be used. The doctor can also prescribe anticonvulsant drugs for seizures and meds used to treat people with attention deficit disorder, which will decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity in autistic children.
Alternative therapies and research on autism
Besides behavioral therapy and medication, there are numerous controversial therapies and alternative interventions available to fight autism, most of which are not supported by scientific studies. While looking at these possibilities, parents must be very cautious before choosing a treatment that’s not approved. Although dietary interventions have been helpful in some children, parents must be sure that the nutritional status of the child is carefully followed.
At the research field, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) fund eleven Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) that investigate early brain development and functioning, social interactions in infants, rare genetic variants and mutations, associations between autism-related genes and physical traits, possible environmental risk factors and biomarkers, and a potential, new medication treatment.
For example, Texas-based institutions like Asuragen Inc., the Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital or the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas have been developing studies in order to improve diagnosis methods and treatments for autism.
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