Autism
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WHAT IS AUTISM?
Autism is used to describe a group of neural developmental disorders (referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) which include Asperger Syndrome, Rett Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder) in the brain which hamper the development of communication skills and social skills in young children – symptoms are most evident up until an age of 3 years.
WHO DOES AUITISM AFFECT?
Autism affects in 1 in every 110 children which makes it more common than childhood cancer. The prevalence of autism is increasing by 10 – 17 percent annually (often attributed to increasing environmental factors and improved diagnosis) and it occurs more often in boys than girls but it does not pertain to a specific socio-economic profile.
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WHAT ARE THE CAUSES?
The exact cause of autism is unknown but it is largely believed to be caused by genetics. (For example someone in a family which suffers language difficulties has a higher chance of have an autistic baby.) Studies have found that there are a number of genes associated with autism whilst other studies show that autistic people have unusual levels of some neurotransmitters in the brain. Autism is also largely believed to be caused by environmental factors and studies shown that autism is related to vaccines (especially those done in early childhood) and pollutants/toxins such as diesel exhaust, pesticides, mercury emissions, and heavy metals. Fathering a child in later life is also believed to increase the risk factor of having an autistic child but it is NOT caused by bad parenting as some believe.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
Symptoms differ from person to person but some common early symptoms include:
  • no babbling/pointing by 1 year
  • no single words by 16 months or two-word phrases by 2 years
  • no response to name/social responsiveness
  • obsessive lining up of toys
Later symptoms include:
  • inability to make friends/emapathize (There is a misconception that autistic people don't have feelings as people without autiism do - TheTruth: They Do have feelings just like 'normal' people!)
  • cannot start or sustain a conversation
  • lack of imaginative play (pretend play)
  • repetitive patterns of activity with a particular, intense focus
  • obsession with certain objects
  • loss of language
  • hyperactivity, short attention span, impulsiveness, aggressiveness, self-injurious behaviour, regular and easily sparked temper-tantrums
  • described as being bad-tempered, detached, restless
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IS THERE A CURE?
Autism is a life-long disease for which there is no cure. The best way to improve an autistic child’s symptoms and outlook on life is to start intervention early with therapy which meets the specific needs of the child. Therapy would be very structured and intense, skill-centred sessions which help to develop language and social skills in the child. A combination of different types of therapies is the most effective. Medication may also be given to treat autism-related symptoms such as depression, OCD, seizures, ADD and anxiety. A gluten-free diet is thought to improve autism in some children although it is not recommended as not all studies support it.
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WHAT IS THE LONG TERM PROGNOSIS?
The long term prognosis of autism depends on the severity of the disease and the therapy received. Effective and early therapy will increase the improvement of the symptoms greatly although some symptoms may be prevalent throughout life. Autism cannot be cured completely.
WHAT IF YOUR CHILD HAS AUTISM?
If your child has autism there is financial support for you in the form of grants and there are many resources which detail how to care for your child (visit http://www.helpguide.org/mental/autism_help.htm for more information). Ways to care for your child include:
  • Provide structure and safety by being consistent, staying to a schedule
  • Find non-verbal ways to connect and understand what makes your child tick
  • Create a plan which is personalized for the interests and strengths of your child
  • Join a support group, go for counselling (visit http://www.autismone.org/content/about-us and Autism Action South Africa)
  • Get a caregiver to look after your child sometimes to allow yourself to regenerate and be the best parent you can be for your child
  • Know the rights of your child who has autism (visit http://www.autismsouthafrica.org/autism_south_africa_doc_050.htm)
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WHAT IS THE PUBLIC PERCEPTION OF AUTISM?
Many people with autism suffer intolerance, discrimination and isolation as mots of the public knows of autism but does not fully understand the condition. Research from The National Autistic Society which surveyed people in UK shows that once people know that someone has autism they interact in a more accepting an understanding manner as opposed to just dismissing their behaviour as “weird”. It also shows that people believe that only children have autism but it also effects adults as a child with autism grows into an adult with autism. This research also uncovered that there is a belief that people with autism are especially intelligent in some areas such as maths or art whilst, in fact, only 1 in every 200 people with autism have such ability. A common misconception is that there is a cure for autism.
(Go to http://blog.sfgate.com/lshumaker/2010/11/14/autism-understanding-public-perceptions-its-not-always-about-us/ to read about a mother and her autistic son's experience)
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REFERENCES:
http://www.boston.com/lifestyle/health/articles/2011/11/10/study_autistic_brains_are_heavier_with_more_neurons/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autism#Causes
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002494/
http://autism.about.com/od/SymptomsofAutism/bb/Checklist-Of-Autism-Symptoms.htm
http://jacobbarnett.org/autism-defined/
http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Autism/Pages/Autismmythsandfacts.aspx
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002494/
http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/autism/detail_autism.htm#198193082
http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/info/autism/