Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the name given to a group of developmental disorders that include symptoms of social deficits, social interaction and communication problems, as well as repetitive behaviors and a limited range of interests or activities.
Some of the children “on the spectrum” have poor or limited eye contact, difficulty in adapting to new routines, or repetition of words or behaviors they see in others. They may have unusual ways of communicating or playing with their toys, unusual tone and inflection of their voice, and difficulty understanding other people’s point of view. They may be easily distracted or hyper focused on certain aspects of their toys or have selective interests in certain topics. They may be overly or under sensitive to pain or sensory stimulation.
These disorders begin during the early developmental period in childhood and can usually be diagnosed before age 3. But because the severity ranges from mild to very severe, they may not be diagnosed until later in adolescence or adult life.
The causes of autism are not completely understood, but in recent years researchers have found evidence pointing to familial/genetic factors that in some cases lead to underlying brain pathologies.
All children should be screened in the early developmental period by a doctor who specializes in brain development and behavior — especially children who may be at higher risk such as boys and those with other siblings with developmental disorders. Early diagnosis leading to early intervention is important to improve the prognosis.
Several screening instruments are readily available and used by child psychiatrists or developmental pediatricians to screen children for ASD. Diagnostic assessments may include cognitive, visual, hearing, speech and language, occupational and physical therapy evaluations.
Treatment should focus on social interactions, behavior modification and therapies to address specific deficits. Medications can be used when symptoms such as self-injurious behaviors, hyperactivity or depression are present.
Ana E Campo, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. To learn more visit umiamihospital.com/specialties/psychiatry.