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The autism puzzle.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

April is Autism Awareness Month. Because of that, Therapy Toolbox will write a blog each week in April sharing information about autism and the different areas that autism can impact, such as speech and language skills, social skills, and behavior. We will also provide information about ways to work on these skills in therapy and at home. Today is World Autism Awareness Day, so we are going to start by giving a general overview of autism. 

New numbers came out in the last few weeks detailing how many school age children are currently diagnosed with autism, and the incidence is even higher than was last thought; according to these numbers, 1 in 50 school children have been diagnosed with some type of autism based on parental reporting. A USA Today article written by Karen Weintraub likened those numbers to roughly 1 child on every school bus. WOW. 

Because of these new numbers and because it is World Autism Awareness Day, I thought it would be the perfect time to explain a little more about what autism is for the parents and families who don’t know a lot about it, for the families that have just had a child receive the diagnosis of autism, or to be a resource for people that do not know too much about autism.


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism can both be used as general terms to describe a group of complex disorders of brain development. As the name implies, autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning each child with autism has it to varying degrees and will likely have numerous skills impacted to varying degrees. It is often said that when you meet one child with autism, you have just met one child with autism, because the characteristics of autism can be so unique for each child. Children and adults with autism can have difficulty with social interaction, difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication, and they can also exhibit repetitive behaviors. Children and adults with autism may or may not have some type of intellectual disability and difficulty with motor coordination and attention. Children and adults with autism may have unusual sleeping patterns and gastrointestinal disturbances (and elect to be on a casin free, gluten free diet because of these gastrointestinal disturbances). Finally, children and adults with autism can excel at many things, such as music, math, and art.


Autism can be diagnosed at any age. Typically, the earlier the diagnosis is received, the earlier intervention can begin, which is always better for the child and their family. According to the “Autism Speaks” website (autismspeaks.org), the most obvious signs of autism emerge between 2 and 3 years old. Autism can be diagnosed earlier than 2 however (often around 18 months), and is often diagnosed later than 3. It is important to be aware of the signs of autism so the diagnosis can be made as early as possible. 


Children with autism often have difficulty with social skills, language skills, and behavior.  Autism Speaks offers the following signs as “red flags” for a child being at risk for autism:

*No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by 6 months of thereafter

*No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions by 9 months

*No babbling 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

Autism Speaks recommends to consult with your pediatrician or family doctor about further evaluation if your child exhibits any of the above behaviors.


As I mentioned above, the numbers from a recent study concluded that autism impacted 1 in 88 children; now it is believed to be 1 in 50 school age children. It is believed that autism impacts boys 4 times more than girls. 


It was unknown for a long time what causes autism, and researchers are still not 100% sure. However, recent research is demonstrating that autism does not come from one cause, but more likely from a number of different factors. These factors include genetic factors or mutations and environmental factors, such as advanced parental age at the time of conception, maternal illness during pregnancy, and certain difficulties during birth (mainly oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain). It is not thought that these factors cause autism exclusively, but instead a combination of genetic and environmental factors may increase the risk of a child having autism. 

There is no doubt that the incidence of autism is on the rise. Unfortunately, there is no clear cut explanation as to why it is rising like it is and what is causing it to rise at such a rapid rate. Research has shown that the earlier intervention can start, the better it is for the child and for their family. So, if you have concerns about your child, please discuss them with your pediatrician who can help determine if further evaluation is needed. 

*The next article will focus on the impact autism can have on speech and language development and skills.