April is Autism Awareness Month

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Story by Cheri Woodsmall

When her son Jase was a little over 2, Kari could feel something wasn’t right. Jase seemed to develop normally at first, excelling in gross motor skills and topping the charts in height and weight. Then something stopped. She could see Jase regressing instead of meeting normal toddler milestones. He lost expression and would often keep to himself during playdates with other children. And after several sleepless nights and trips to the pediatrician, Kari finally used her voice and demanded answers. Jase’s doctor referred her to a developmental specialist, and it was soon after that, her beautiful little boy was diagnosed with Autism.  


WHAT IS AUTISM?

Autism is a complex, lifelong developmental disability that typically appears during early childhood and can impact a person’s social skills, communication, relationships, and self-regulation. Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition” that affects people differently and to varying degrees.

While there is currently no known single cause of autism, early diagnosis helps a person receive the support and services that they need, which can lead to a quality life filled with opportunity.



HISTORY OF AUTISM

From the early 1900s, Autism has been referenced to a range of neuro-psychological conditions. The term comes from the Greek word “autos”, which means “self”. It means conditions in which an individual is removed from social interaction. Hence, they become and “isolated self”. A Swiss psychiatrist named Eugen Bleuler first used the term in 1911 to refer to one group of symptoms related to schizophrenia. 

In the 1940s, researchers in the United States began to use “autism” to describe children with emotional or social problems. Leo Kanner, a doctor from Johns Hopkins University, used it to describe the withdrawn behavior of several children he studied. At about the same time, Hans Asperger, a scientist in Germany, identified a similar condition that is now called Asperger’s syndrome.

Autism and schizophrenia remained linked in many researchers’ minds until the 1960s. It was only then that medical professionals began to have a separate understanding of autism in children.


WHAT ARE THE TYPES OF AUTISM?

Over time, psychiatrists have developed a systematic way of describing autism and related conditions. All of these conditions are placed within a group of conditions called Autism Spectrum Disorders. Depending on how severe symptoms are, they are classified under level 1, 2 or 3. Pervasive Development Disorder was used as a term before but now is no longer used. If a child was called PDD before, their diagnosis would be ASD under the new criteria.



WHAT ARE THE EARLY SIGNS OF AUTISM?

  • How your child plays, acts, talks, and moves are important parts of his or her development. There are milestones that a child is expected to reach by certain ages.
  • No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by six months 
  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or facial expressions by nine months 
  • No babbling or response to name by 12 months 
  • No back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, reaching or waving by 12 months 
  • No words by 16 months 
  • No meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating) by 24 months 
  • Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age

ASPERGER’S SYNDROME – HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM AUTISM

Asperger syndrome, or Asperger’s, is a previously used diagnosis on the autism spectrum. In 2013, it became part of one umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5).

Typical to strong verbal language skills and intellectual ability distinguish Asperger syndrome from other types of autism.

Children with Asperger’s Disorder may be only mildly affected, and they frequently have good language and cognitive skills. To the untrained observer, a child with Asperger’s Disorder may just seem like a neurotypical child behaving differently.

Kari’s son Jase, if you recall, started to withdrawal from other children during playdates. Children with autism are frequently viewed as aloof and uninterested in others. This is not the case with Asperger’s Disorder. Individuals with Asperger’s Disorder usually want to fit in and become friends’ with others, but often they don’t know how to make friends like other kids. They may be socially awkward, not understand conventional social rules or show a lack of empathy. They may have limited eye contact, seem unengaged in a conversation, and not understand the use of gestures, wit or sarcasm.

Their interests in a particular subject may border on the obsessive. Children with Asperger’s Disorder often like to collect categories of things, such as rocks or bottle caps. They may be proficient in knowledge categories of information, such as baseball statistics or Latin names of flowers. They may have good rote memory skills but struggle with abstract concepts.

One of the major differences between Asperger’s Disorder and autism is that, by definition, there is no speech delay in Asperger’s. In fact, children with Asperger’s Disorder frequently have good language skills; they simply use language in different ways. Speech patterns may be unusual, lack inflection or have a rhythmic nature, or may be formal, but too loud or high-pitched. Children with Asperger’s Disorder may not understand the subtleties of language, such as irony and humor, or they may not understand the give-and-take nature of a conversation.

Another distinction between Asperger’s Disorder and autism concerns cognitive ability. While some individuals with autism have intellectual disabilities, by definition, a person with Asperger’s Disorder cannot have a “clinically significant” cognitive delay, and most possess average to above-average intelligence.

While motor difficulties are not a specific criterion for Asperger’s, children with Asperger’s Disorder frequently have motor skill delays and may appear clumsy or awkward.



HOW IS AUTISM TREATED?

The goal of medication is to make it easier for the person with autism to participate in activities such as learning and behavioral therapy. Drugs used to treat anxiety, attention problems, depression, hyperactivity, and impulsivity may be recommended. These do not “cure” autism (there are no cures yet), but they can treat underlying dysfunctional symptoms that get in the individual’s way of learning and growing.

There is some evidence that people with autism may have certain deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. These deficiencies don’t cause autism spectrum disorder. Supplements, though, may be recommended to improve nutrition. Vitamin B and magnesium are two of the most frequent supplements used for people with autism. However, one can overdose on these vitamins, so mega-vitamins should be avoided.

Diet changes may also help with some symptoms of autism. Food allergies, for example, may make behavior problems worse. Removing the allergen from the diet may improve behavior issues.


WHAT RESOURCE ARE AVAILABLE IN KANSAS CITY?

The Autism Society of the Heartland KU Edwards Campus (Office closed due to COVID-19)  asaheartland.org – 913-706-0042

Kansas City Autism Training Center10842 McGee Street KCMO., kcatc.org – (913) 432-5454

Sherwood Autism Center8030 Ward Parkway Plaza KCMO., sherwoodcenter.org – 816-363-4606

Sources: Autism Speaks, Autism Society, Autism Society of Heartland, WebMD
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