Autism is a spectrum of closely related disorders with a shared core of symptoms. Autism spectrum disorder appears in infancy and early childhood, causing delays in many basic areas of development, such as learning to talk, play, and interact with others.
The signs and symptoms of autism vary widely, as do its effects. Some children with autism have only mild impairments, while others have more obstacles to overcome. However, every child on the autism spectrum has problems, at least to some degree, in the following three areas:
• Communicating verbally and non-verbally
• Relating to others and the world around them
• Thinking and behaving flexibly
There are different opinions among doctors, parents, and experts about what causes autism and how best to treat it. There is one fact, however, that everyone agrees on: early and intensive intervention helps. For children at risk and children who show early signs, it can make all the difference.
Causes of autism
Until recently, most scientists believed that autism is caused mostly by genetic factors. But ground-breaking new research indicates that environmental factors may also be important in the development of autism.
Babies may be born with a genetic vulnerability to autism that is then triggered by something in the external environment, either while he or she is still in the womb or sometime after birth.
It’s important to note that the environment, in this context, means anything outside the body. It’s not limited to things like pollution or toxins in the atmosphere. In fact, one of the most important environments appears to be the prenatal environment.
Prenatal factors that may contribute to autism
Taking antidepressants during pregnancy, especially in the first 3 months
Nutritional deficiencies early in pregnancy, particularly not getting enough folic acid
The age of the mother and father
Complications at or shortly after birth, including very low birth weight and neonatal anaemia.
Maternal infections during pregnancy
Exposure to chemical pollutants, such as metals and pesticides, while pregnant
More research on these prenatal risk factors is needed, but if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive, it can’t hurt to take steps now to reduce your baby’s risk of autism.
Regression of any kind is a serious autism warning sign
Some children with autism spectrum disorder start to develop communication skills and then regress, usually between 12 and 24 months. For example, a child who was communicating with words such as “mommy” or “up” may stop using language entirely, or a child may stop playing social games he or she used to enjoy such as peek-a-boo, patty cake, or waving “bye-bye.” Any loss of speech, babbling, gestures, or social skills should be taken very seriously, as regression is a major red flag for autism.
Your baby or toddler doesn’t:
1. Make eye contact, such as looking at you when being fed or smiling when being smiled at
2. Respond to his or her name, or to the sound of a familiar voice
3. Follow objects visually or follow your gesture when you point things out
4. Point or wave goodbye, or use other gestures to communicate
5. Make noises to get your attention
6. Initiate or respond to cuddling or reach out to be picked up
7. Imitate your movements and facial expressions
8. Play with other people or share interest and enjoyment
9. Notice or care if you hurt yourself or experience discomfort
Source: Harvard Health Publications