Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a problem that affects a child’s nervous system and growth and development. It usually shows up during a child’s first 3 years of life.
Some children with ASD seem to live in their own world. They are not interested in other children and lack social awareness. A child with ASD focuses on following a routine that may include usual behaviors. A child with the disorder also often has problems communicating with others and may not start speaking as soon as other children. He or she may not want to make eye contact with other people.
ASD can keep a child from developing social skills. This is in part because a child with ASD may not be able to understand facial expressions or emotions in other people. A child with ASD may:
A child with ASD may also repeat movements. This might be flapping his or her hands or rocking. He or she may also have unusual attachments to objects. But a child with ASD may also do certain mental tasks very well. For example, the child may be able to count or measure better than other children. Children with ASD may do well in art or music, or be able to remember certain things very well.
Researchers don’t know what causes ASD. It may be caused by certain genes. A child with ASD may also have problems with the structure of the brain or with certain chemicals in the brain. Researchers do know that ASD is not caused by what a parent does to raise a child.
Much less commonly, other things that may cause ASD include:
The disorder happens much more often in boys than girls. Four to 5 times as many boys as girls have ASD.
Certain gene disorders that run in families can raise a child’s risk for ASD. These include:
Your child may need genetic testing to help find out which problem he or she has. The testing is done by a medical geneticist. This is a healthcare provider with special training in genes and gene problems. He or she can let you know the chances of having another child with the gene problem. For example, PKU carries a 1 in 4 chance of happening in another pregnancy. For tuberous sclerosis, the chances are 1 in 2.
Even when no gene problem is found, you are at a slightly higher chance of having another child with ASD. Researchers think this is because several genes from both parents may act together to cause ASD.
Each child may have slightly different symptoms. Below are the most common symptoms of ASD.
The symptoms of ASD may look like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
No single medical test can diagnose ASD. Healthcare providers use certain guidelines to help diagnose ASD in children before age 2. The guidelines can help diagnose the disorder early. Children diagnosed with ASD early can be treated right away.
The guidelines say that all children should be screened for ASD and other development disorders before age 2. The screening is done at well-child checkups. Children who have symptoms of development or behavior disorders will need to get more testing for ASD.
Healthcare providers look for the following problems during well-child visits before age 2:
If a child has any of the above problems, the healthcare provider will do more screening. This will help show whether your child has ASD or another developmental disorder. Your child may need to see a healthcare provider with special training to diagnose and treat ASD. Your child may also need these screening tests:
Each child with ASD needs his or her own special treatment program. This is because children with ASD can vary a lot in how much help they need. Programs that work best are those that are started as early as possible and involve the parents.
Treatment for ASD includes:
Your child and your family may also need to see a mental health provider. This provider can give you parent counseling, social skills training, and one-on-one therapy. This provider can also help you find the treatment programs that are best for your child.
Experts don’t know how to prevent ASD in children. They do know that it is not caused by what a parent does to raise a child. Spotting and treating ASD early can lessen symptoms and enhance your child’s normal development. It can also improve your child’s quality of life.
Your child’s primary care provider will play a key role in supporting you and your child. He or she will help you understand treatment and how to care for your child. You play a critical part in your child’s treatment and well-being. Here are things you can do to help your child:
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider: