Even after decades of research into this difficult-to-understand condition, autism rates are continuing to climb. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows that the prevalence of autism has risen 30% since 2008, and that one out of every 68 children in the U.S. now falls on the autism spectrum.
Although we don’t know why these rates are rising, part of this increase may actually be a good sign that we are doing a better job at diagnosing autism. Catching autism early and getting children treatment quickly can make a huge difference in their and their families’ long-term quality of life. This Autism Awareness Month, make sure you know what to look for and how to help the children you love so that you can help provide the support they and their families need.
What causes autism isn’t known, though studies have ruled out certain potential causes. Many studies have affirmed, for example, that there is no link between vaccines and autism. The most recent evidence suggests that something that happens before, during or soon after birth is probably the main cause. One new study published just last week suggests that changes in brain tissue and improperly developed brain cells can be seen in very young children with autism. This new data suggests that disrupted genes may be interfering with brain development during mid to late pregnancy, leading later on to the symptoms of autism. Children with other genetic disorders like fragile X syndrome or who have siblings with autism are also at increased risk. However, environmental or even infectious factors are also being investigated as potential contributors, as well.
Until we have a better understanding of what is causing autism, it will be hard to determine how to develop effective treatments. There is currently no cure for autism, but interventions early in a child’s life – especially between birth and three years old – can significantly improve children’s social skills and development. Among other things, behavioral therapy and specialized educational programs can focus on helping children with autism talk and interact with others. Consequently, it’s important to identify potential warning signs as early as possible.
People with autism generally have trouble with social, emotional and communication skills that persist throughout their lifetimes. The symptoms of autism vary in severity along a spectrum, so mild cases may go undiagnosed for many years. Some signs and symptoms may begin during infancy. According to the National Institute of Health, early indicators can include no babbling or pointing by age 1, no single words by 16 months or two-word phrases by age 2, not responding to their name, losing language or social skills they previously had, poor eye contact, performing repetitive tasks excessively, or a lack of smiling or being socially responsive. Older children may have trouble making friends and having sustained conversations. They might also engage in less imaginative playing, have repetitive or unusual speaking habits, or have interests or preoccupations that are very specific and restricted. For unknown reasons, boys are almost five times more likely to have autism than girls.
Especially with good interventions and tailored education or therapy, many people with autism are able to learn to function socially and lead independent lives. There are also many resources that can help support and educate families with autistic children. You can find more information about autism here and at the Autism Society’s website.