Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Medical Code: SGM-FS-003
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Condition: Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Layman’s Definition:  An inborn problem with recognizing and understanding the emotions expressed by other people and/or recognizing that others are trying to communicate with them, leading to lack of language acquisition or poor social skills depending on the severity of the disability.  Other symptoms such as repetitive behaviors or oversensitivity to sounds or touch may also be present and there is a broad range (spectrum) of symptom severity.

Prevalence: 1 in 68 children in the US for the complete spectrum of disability; 5 times more common in males

Typical Age of Symptom Onset: 2-3 years for more severe forms of Autism, early teens for less severe Asperger’s Disease

Primary Symptoms: Autism is characterized by marked and persistent problems with communication and social interaction. People with autism also typically have highly restricted patterns of behavior and a narrow range of interests. The range (or spectrum) of disability is quite wide. In very severe cases, children never learn to speak and rarely make eye contact with others. In the least affected cases (Asperger Syndrome), individuals may pursue successful careers in highly specialized fields but have few friends and avoid most social interactions. The onset of symptoms is often quite sudden, and previously normal-seeming toddlers may suddenly appear to regress and withdraw. This is believed to be due to normal developmental changes unmasking previously hidden structural problems. It’s as though when it’s time for the brain to shift gears from infant learning mode to toddler learning mode, it suddenly becomes clear that there is no second gear.

Secondary Symptoms: Autistic individuals often show extreme sensitivity to stimulation, especially loud sounds or touch. Children may not be able to tolerate being hugged or held. People with autism often become anxious very easily, especially if they feel over-stimulated and engage in repetitive motions such as such as rocking, spinning, or hand flapping to sooth themselves.

Note: Children who begin to develop language skills and then regress without showing other autistic symptoms may have Landau-Kleffner Syndrome (also called acquired epileptic aphasia) and should be tested for epilepsy. (See also: Fact Sheet Acquired Epileptic Aphasia)

Cause(s)/Risk Factor(s): Causes and risk factors are unknown, but autism is believed to be caused primarily by genetics with some sort of additional environmental trigger, possibly maternal stresses such as infection during pregnancy. One version of the condition in females (Rhett Syndrome) has been linked to a specific gene mutation.

Standard Treatment(s): There is no medication that affects the primary symptoms of autism. Specialized educational services are generally recommended to assist with language development and life skills. Parents are usually encouraged to work with a therapist to identify emotional triggers that increase their child’s tendency to withdraw, as well as specific interests which will engage and draw out their child. Parents will likely need to modify their own behaviors in order to accommodate their child’s lowered tolerance for stimulation. Medications may be prescribed to reduce secondary symptoms such as anxiety, which may become heightened in late teen years. Attempting to block or disrupt repetitive behaviors is generally not advised; these actions seem to help the autistic person reduce stress. Interfering with these self-soothing actions can heighten an autistic person’s anxiety.    

For more information about Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis and treatment, see: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html

For advice about raising a child with Autism, accessing educational services, and understanding the behavior of individuals with Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder, see: https://www.autismspeaks.org/

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