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World Autism Day: Can Early Intervention Lead to Effective Treatment?

Dr. Gunda Srinivas

Let's celebrate the diversity of our global community & strengthen our commitment to inclusion for people with autism.

World Autism Day is observed on the 2nd of April every year to raise awareness about the hurdles that young kids and adults with autism face in their everyday lives. This year, the theme for World Autism Day is ‘Assistive Technologies, Active Participation.’ It focuses on the fact that access to affordable assistive technologies enables individuals on the autistic spectrum to exercise their basic human rights and participate fully in the life of their communities, just like others do.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is identified as a developmental disorder because the symptoms of it generally start showing up in the first two years of life. It is related to a part of brain development that directly impacts an individual’s perception and social skills, thus affecting their communication and behaviour.

Early signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Since ASD is a developmental disorder, in most cases, signs are visible from early infancy stage of a child. In some cases, children do develop normally for the first few months or years until a point when they suddenly start showing signs of ASD. Since ASD is so vast, it affects every child differently. Some children face difficulty with learning things and have a lower IQ while some have a normal to high intelligence, but face difficulty communicating and applying what they have learnt in daily life. Developmental pediatricians, child neurologists, and child psychologists play a key role here in making a diagnosis.

Social and behavioural symptoms in autistic children

Red Flags in a child’s speech and language skills:

  • A child who has not said his first meaningful word by the age of 16 – 18 months.
  • A child who is not able to make a 2-word phrase by 2 years.
  • A child who may have said his first words by 18 months but subsequently the development did not keep pace.
  • A child who may have said his first syllables between 9–18 months but this regressed.
  • A child who developed good eye contact and social smile with mother by the age of 2-4 months but these skills started regressing by the age of 9-18 months.

Red Flags in a child’s communication skills:

  • Lack of meaningful eye contact
  • Lack of age-appropriate gestures (pointing, waving) and facial expressions
  • Lack of ability to initiate or sustain a conversation
  • Lack of ability to follow non-verbal cues by 12 months of age
  • Lack of joint attention (usually a young child and an adult use gestures and gaze to share attention with respect to interesting objects or events)
  • Lack of protodeclarative pointing (indicates the desire to share an experience with another person)

Red Flags in a child’s social and personal skills:

  • Lack of social and emotional reciprocity
  • Has difficulty making friends
  • Lack of urge to share enjoyment, interests, or achievement
  • Failure to develop age-appropriate peer relationships
  • Difficulty in understanding the concept of age-appropriate play
  • Difficulty in differentiating between family members and outside visitors
  • Age-appropriate ADL (Activities of Daily Living) not attained
  • Have repetitive movements like hand flapping, head banging, rocking
  • Inappropriate sensitivity to light, touch, and sound.

These problems based on their severity, slowly begin to subside as the children grow older. While some individuals start living normal to near-normal lives, others still continue to face issues with their social and behavioural skills.

Causes of Autism Spectrum Disorder

As on today, there’s no single known cause of ASD. This is because the disorder is so complex and vast that multiple causes may be involved. Primarily, genetics and certain environmental factors may have a role to play:

Genetics

A list of different genes is said to be involved in ASD. In some children, it can be due to a genetic disorder like the Rett Syndrome or Fragile X Syndrome, while in others, genetic mutations can be responsible for an increased risk of ASD. Some of these genetic mutations are hereditary while others simply occur spontaneously.

Environmental factors

While there’s nothing factually established yet, currently researchers are working around the possibility of factors like medications, complications, or viral infections during pregnancy alongside air pollutants playing a role in triggering ASD.

Can vaccinations cause Autism Spectrum Disorder?

It is a myth that vaccinations in children can lead to autism and has been proven beyond doubt that there is no relation between vaccinations and a higher risk of ASD.

Risk factors for Autism Spectrum Disorder

The number of ASD cases in children is rising. While it can affect children of all nationalities and races, these are the factors that increase a child’s risk of having ASD:

  • The child’s sex: Boys are about four times more likely to have ASD than girls.
  • Family history: In case there’s already a child with ASD in the family, there’s a higher possibility that another child would have ASD as well.
  • Preterm babies: Babies who are born before 26 weeks of gestation are more likely to have ASD than those who are born full-term.
  • Age of parents: It’s a possibility that there’s a connection between children born to older parents and Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, more research is needed to back this theory.
  • Medical conditions: Children who have a medical condition like Rett Syndrome or the Fragile X Syndrome, are more likely to have ASD than children with no medical conditions.

How is Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosed?

It is difficult to diagnose ASD since there’s no blood test or medical test to do so. The doctor examines the child’s behaviour, communication, development, and also has a detailed discussion with the parents to understand the child’s activities, capabilities and deficiencies at home since birth before making a diagnosis of ASD. Sometimes it can be diagnosed at 18 months or younger, while in some cases, it is diagnosed only when the child is much older. A professional child development specialist can make a reliable diagnosis by the time the child is 2-years-old.

Developmental Screenings

This is the first step in diagnosing ASD in children. Each developmental milestone plays a key role in determining if a child is learning age-appropriate skills when he/she should. A delay in any of these milestones can be a warning sign. Regular well-child doctor visits are thus very important and every child should be screened for developmental delays during these visits at 9 months, 18 months, and 24 or 30 months. Additional screenings are in store for children who were either preterm babies or had a very low birth-weight or other complications.

Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation

This is the next step in diagnosing ASD in children. It is a more vivid evaluation, wherein a child’s behaviour and development are looked at, along with interviews with the parents. It also includes various screenings like vision and hearing screening, neurological testing, genetic testing, and more.

Can early intervention in ASD lead to effective treatment?

The answer is yes! According to a recent study, early educational and behavioural interventions have been remarkably successful in children with ASD. Training sessions that are well-structured, more intensive and skill-oriented are used to help these children develop and hone their language and social skills. Family counselling programmes are introduced for the parents and siblings of these children to help them have a better understanding of how to deal with the challenges of living with a child who has ASD. Meanwhile, experts are working on more therapies that can significantly reduce the detrimental effects of ASD on children’s brains while they are still toddlers since infant’s brains are quite pliable.

On this World Autism Day, vouch for a better today and tomorrow for every child, autistic or not. Track your child’s development regularly. Download the mfine app today and consult with top pediatricians and psychiatrists right away.

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