Autism is a developmental disorder that afflicts roughly 1 in every 100 babies born in the UK – although some figures show that number is climbing.
A child on the autistic spectrum might be identified by exhibiting repetitive behaviours or not being capable of interacting socially; autism usually impacts on a child’s ability to communicate and form close relationships, even with their own parents.
Usually autistic children will begin displaying symptoms before the age of 3. Some signs of an autistic child include:
- Difficulty communicating, both verbally and non-verbally. An autistic child may have trouble speaking or understanding language. It’s also possible for children to lose some language skills they had already developed. Gestures, like pointing or waving may prove difficult to perform or understand.
- Constant crying. Some babies or toddlers with autism will cry non-stop, no matter what is done to try and quieten them.
- A preference to be alone. Most children will play in groups and make friends, while autistic children tend to play alone and can appear quite introverted.
- Unusual behaviour when playing. Often an autistic toddler will line up their toys meticulously or stack objects in a precise way.
- A resistance to change. Many autistic children prefer to keep to a routine and have everything in its place. They may prefer to follow the same pattern of daily activities, with certain dressing or eating rituals. Any changes can seem disruptive to them, and they become extraordinarily frustrated, throwing massive tantrums over seemingly minor irregularities.
- Repetitive movements. Some autistic children make repetitive movements or have behaviours like hand flapping or spinning. More alarmingly, some autistic children can injure themselves by insisting on repeatedly picking their skin, biting their fingers, poking themselves in the eye, or banging their head against surfaces.
- A lack of imagination. Playtime will generally consist of constructing or moving objects instead of playing games or making up stories.
- Savantism. Very occasionally, an autistic child or person may have remarkable mental abilities in specific areas, such as numbers, music, or art, without being taught. This phenomenon has fascinated doctors who are unable to explain exactly how the brain is capable of such feats.
The causes of autism are still unknown, but the latest research shows several factors which are likely contributors to a child developing the condition.
Studies suggest it’s likely that there’s a strong genetic basis to the disorder. Genes possibly being passed on from one or both parents could make a child more likely to develop autism.
Other theories suggest that abnormalities in brain structure or the immune system attacking inappropriate areas of the brain can cause autism. Some childhood vaccines have been controversially and inconclusively linked to the condition, though the current scientific consensus is that there is no evidence of a link between vaccines and autism.
Potential environmental factors that influence the development of autism include exposure to pesticides during pregnancy (an American study showed that women who lived next to fields sprayed with certain chemicals were several times more likely to have a child with autism). There’s also speculation about mercury and lead poisoning having an impact on the development of autism, although this link remains unproven.
Some people have suggested that diet coupled with a digestive disorder means that ingesting gluten and casein (found in wheat and dairy products respectively) leads to autism, but the scientific evidence doesn’t yet exist to back up such claims.
What to Do
If you think your toddler is displaying signs of autism, take them to a doctor and ask for a referral to someone who can make a diagnosis. Research shows that early diagnosis and intervention is for the best.
Autism can be difficult to recognise and can present in very varied ways, making it difficult to diagnose, so if you honestly believe that something isn’t right, be persistent. Not all doctors will recognise the symptoms straight away.
Author Bio – James Armstrong is an experience journalist and broadcaster, currently writing on behalf of Autism Care UK.