Autism is often referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as the level of severity and symptoms vary from person to person; some people have mild symptoms while others may display severe symptoms.
Autism’s social deficits and behavioural patterns might not be recognised until much later in life when the individual is unable to meet social, educational, occupational, or other important life stage demands.
Currently, 1 in 70 or around 353,880 people in Australia are on the autism spectrum. This has increased by over 40% since 2014.
Recent research has linked autism to increased rates of mortality and the risk of a range of health problems.
The specific underlying causes of autism remain unknown. Recent studies have found strong evidence to indicate a genetic link, however, the underlying genetic variant has been defined in only in a small number of cases.
Researchers are investigating a range of causal possibilities such as problems during pregnancy and childbirth, as well as environmental factors like viral infections, metabolic imbalances, and exposure to chemicals.
- Treatment and diagnosis
- Gender: autism is more common in males than females
- Genetic influences: having a parent or sibling with autism increases individual risk
- Children born to older parents are at greater risk of developing autism.
The severity and characteristics of autism symptoms can vary from person to person.
Common autism signs in children:
- Delayed speech and language skills
- Repeating words or phrases over and over again
- Failure to use terms such as ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘you’
- Engaging in repetitive behaviour such as rocking, touching
- Social withdrawal, eg preferring to play alone
- Problems understanding non-verbal communication from peers and adults
- Avoiding direct eye contact with people.
Common symptoms in autism in adults:
- Difficulty understanding social cues
- Adhering to a strict daily routines and getting agitated or anxious if this routine is disrupted
- Avoiding eye contact or unable to maintain eye contact
- Flat or monotonous speech
- Social withdrawal
- Trouble with understanding and maintaining relationships with others
- Difficulty expressing feelings
- Inability to stay on topic when talking or answering questions
- Obsessing over certain subjects or activities.
Diagnosis can significantly improve the quality of life for people living with autism, however, it is not always easy to diagnose. It is not uncommon for people with autism to reach adulthood without a diagnosis.
Diagnosis is usually conducted through an autism assessment. This involves a team of medical experts observing an individual’s behavior and listening to their concerns.
In children, autism is primarily diagnosed through observation. The child may be assessed by a specialist team of health professionals (including a pediatrician, psychologist, speech pathologist and/or a neurologist).
In adult cases, if an individual decides to seek a diagnosis, a team of health professionals will carry out a comprehensive autism assessment. A psychologist or psychiatrist may inquire about an individual's childhood and experiences at school to gain a better understanding of their life. A speech pathologist may also examine social communication skills.
Presently, there are no drug treatments to alleviate the symptoms of autism, nor is there a cure for the condition. However, autism can be effectively managed.
It is important to note that treatment for autism differs from person to person – based on the severity of symptoms.
The aim of these therapies is to improve speech and behavior, and can include:
- Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
- Occupational therapy - to help with everyday tasks
- Pivotal Response treatment (a behavioral treatment approach)
- Relationship Development Intervention
- Speech therapy to improve communication skills
- Play therapy - commonly offered to children with autism, the aim is to help improve social and emotional skills