What are autism spectrum disorders?

The term autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) is used to describe a group of development disorders that have similar features. ASDs are a "spectrum" because of the widely different manifestations autism symptoms can take. ASDs cause symptoms such as difficulty communicating and trouble with social interactions. They can also affect the regular functioning of the liver and of the gastrointestinal, immune, hormone, and nervous systems.

Autism is usually detected by the age of 3 years through certain warning signs, such as repetitive patterns of behaviour, as well as difficulties in social and communication skills. These behaviours and difficulties also range from mild to severe depending on the child or adult who is affected with autism.

Health Canada estimates that 1 in every 150 to 160 children is diagnosed with autism, and boys are four times more likely to be affected than girls. This means autism is more common than other childhood disorders that have been better understood and studied, such as type 1 diabetes, Down syndrome, AIDS, and spina bifida.

There is currently no cure for autism, and the causes of autism are still unclear. But studies have shown that autism may have a genetic cause and that it affects the part of the brain that regulates social and communication skills - making it harder for people with autism to connect emotionally with other people. Some other theories as to the causes of autism include problems with pre-and post-natal development, external environment, and immune deficiencies.

Parents will most likely be the first to discover this disconnect with their child, and the sooner you notice signs of abnormal behaviour in your child, the sooner you should take action. Although there may be different categories of diagnosis for autism spectrum disorders, they all share the same road to treatment and improvement: the earlier the diagnosis and the intervention, the better the chance of reducing and improving the symptoms of autism.

There are 5 main types of diagnoses under autism spectrum disorder:

  • autistic disorder: Autistic disorder, also known as "classic" autism, is characterized by 4 areas of developmental breakdown (see "Autism: the road from suspicion to diagnosis"):
    • social problems
    • language problems
    • behavioural problems
    • problems engaging in imaginative play
    In autistic disorder, the child usually begins by meeting all developmental milestones, and then for some reason shows signs of regression between 12 and 24 months of age.
  • Asperger's syndrome: This is a milder form of classic autism, and people with Asperger's syndrome can usually manage well enough in society. Asperger's syndrome is sometimes referred to as "high-functioning autism," meaning that children or adults diagnosed with this condition are able to do well in society. Children with Asperger's syndrome usually do not have language problems. They do however show problems with socializing and demonstrating repetitive manners.
  • PDD-NOS (pervasive development disorder - not otherwise specified): Children who fall under this category of autism are those who otherwise did not meet enough criteria for the other categories of autism. However, they still share some of the developmental behaviours and difficulties that are characteristic of autism spectrum disorders.
  • Rett's disorder: This is more commonly seen in girls. These children appear to develop normally until about 5 to 18 months of age. At this point, children diagnosed with Rett’s disorder experience a decreased rate in head growth, and lose any previously learned language. Coordination and social problems are also noticed.
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD): This condition is diagnosed around 2 years of age, when a normally developing child begins to lose already learned skills. This disorder, also known as Heller's disease, can occur in children as old as 10 years old.

To find out more, visit the Autism Society Canada website.

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