April is Autism Awareness (or Acceptance) Month! In the 1970s, the Autism Society launched a nationwide effort to build awareness of Autism. Starting with a week of information, this evolved into an entire month. You can check out information about this month on their website here: https://www.autism-society.org/get-involved/national-autism-awareness-month/ or learn more about Autism at their new website here: https://autismsociety.org/the-autism-experience/
Today we'll take some time to talk about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). With the introduction of the latest DSM (V) Autism, Asperger's, and Pervasive Developmental Delay Not Otherwise Specified became one spectrum of disorders. The newer classification has levels of severity based of how daily living is affected and what needs the person has. There's a lot of debate and discussion around this topic that will not be touched upon here. Instead, we'll talk a little about what symptoms are common in ASD. This blog is not meant to serve as medical advice or diagnosis. If you have concerns about your child please reach out to your pediatrician.
If you've ever had a child, you know that there are a set of "expected" developmental milestones that they should follow at each age. Different kids can follow a wide range of what is considered a "normal" timeline for reaching these milestones. However, some kids lag significantly far behind in these milestones. Individuals with ASD tend to fall behind in social/reciprocal skills and repetitive or stereotypical movements/behaviors/interests. This can present itself in a variety of ways. Many parents notice that their child doesn't seem to be interested in pointing out the world around them, or in sharing experiences with them. They may also have hand flapping, make unexplained noises, or do other "stims" that help soothe them. There can be a range of communication difficulties, ranging from completely non-verbal all the way up to fully conversational. There's usually a lack in non-verbal communication (meaning, the ability to understand facial expressions or body language). Individuals with ASD may struggle to form social relationships. They may not want friends, or not know how to make friends. Eye contact can be especially unnerving.
Many people without ASD can have similar social difficulties. And many people with ASD go years before a diagnosis is made. They may have other difficulties, including dysregulated sleep, difficulties with gastrointestinal systems, epilepsy, intellectual delays, extremely restrictive eating, and sensory issues. Again, having these difficulties doesn't always equate with having Autism.
As with most mental health disorders, we do not fully understand what causes ASD. We do know it's very heritable. There are some environmental and social causes we think may play a role. Vaccines do not cause ASD. There is no one to blame for Autism. There's a possibility that if you have a child with ASD, your other children may also have ASD. If you suspect your loved one has ASD, talk to your primary care provider about getting a referral for testing. Autism is diagnosed by specific tests, one being the Autism Diagnostic Observational Schedule. This is done by a trained professional.
Many people carry a school diagnosis of "educational Autism." This generally means that the school is seeing symptoms of ASD that they believe warrant accommodations, but an ADOS or similar has not yet been done.
ASD is part of a larger range of neurodiversity. In itself, ASD encompasses a spectrum of severity and needs. Within the wider community of neurodiverse individuals, you may find others who have similar symptoms or difficulties that do not meet criteria for ASD. May of the signs seen in ASD can be found in kids with anxiety or sensory processing disorder.
If you are seeking help for a loved one with ASD, a great place to start is with your primary care provider. If that hasn't been helpful, check out the websites above for more information. Although we don't specialize in ASD here at Saha Psychiatry, Dr. Shaban is able to provide support and medication management to neurodiverse populations. Reach out today for more information!