Autism is the third most common developmental disability in children that affects both communication and behaviour. It is known as a developmental disorder as the symptoms appear in the first two years of life. Autism is not one but has many subtypes mostly influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Owing to a wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms children experience, autism is known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Autistic children have difficulty in social communication and interaction, restricted interests and repetitive behaviours. Though the disorder is lifelong, care, treatment and support can improve a child’s symptoms and the ability to function.

Autism is four times more common in boys than in girls. It knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries. Family income, lifestyle, or educational levels do not affect a child’s chance of being autistic.

Autism Causes and Risk Factors

The exact cause of autism spectrum disorder is unknown, but genes along with the influences from the environment may affect child development in ways that lead to ASD. Scientists are still trying to understand why some children develop Autism while others don’t. There are some risk factors though that may lead to the greater risk of autism spectrum disorder. For instance, children with genetic disorders such as fragile X syndrome, Down syndrome and Rett syndrome are at increased risk of ASD than others. The other risk factors may include 1. parents’ ages – children born to older parents may be at increased risk for autism. Though there may be a connection, more research is needed to establish this link; 2. Very low birth weight; 3. Extremely preterm babies – babies born before 26 weeks of gestation may have a high risk of ASD; 4. Having a sibling with ASD.

Likewise, exposure to certain drugs or chemicals, viral infections, alcohol and some maternal conditions like obesity, complications during pregnancy, diabetes and use of anti-seizure drug during pregnancy may increase the risk of ASD (Researchers are currently exploring these factors). In this way, many factors may influence the development of autism. Autism is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities (sensitivity to light, temperature and sounds), attention problems, anxiety, gastrointestinal disorders, hyperactivity and depression.

In some cases, autism has been linked to untreated phenylketonuria (called PKU, an inborn metabolic disorder caused by the absence of an enzyme) and rubella (German measles). Although sometimes cited as a cause of autism, there is no evidence that vaccinations cause autism.

Bottom line

Autism Spectrum disorder can be managed with diligent care, treatment and counselling. The ability to function and the symptoms associated with the disorder can improve with proper care and treatment. Parents should pay attention to the symptoms as the symptoms associated with ASD can appear earlier than expected – indicators of ASD usually appear by age 2 or 3 years. According to researchers and scientists, top-quality early intervention can improve communication, social and learning abilities and also improves underlying brain development. As per the recommendations of the American Academy of Paediatrics, caregivers should talk to the paediatric neurologist about ASD screening or evaluation.

General Developmental Screening

General developmental screening for children should begin during the routine health check-ups by a trained paediatrician. In this regard, the American Academy of Paediatrics recommends screening for developmental delays for children at their 9, 18, 24 and 30 month – and, screening for autism at their 18 and 24 months. For children at an increased risk of developing autism, additional screening may be needed. The children who fall under high-risk category include children with behavioural problems, children with a family history of the disorder; children who are born to older parents; children who have certain genetic disorders and also children who are prematurely born or those who were born at very low birth weight.