Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. We now know that there is not one autism but many types, caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences. The term “spectrum” reflects the wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism.
Autistic Disorder, also known as autism, childhood autism, early infantile autism, Kanner’s syndrome or infantile psychosis. People with autistic disorder usually have significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviours and interests. Many people with autistic disorder also have intellectual disability.
Asperger Syndrome, also known as Asperger’s disorder or simply Asperger’s. People with Asperger syndrome usually have some milder symptoms of autistic disorder. They might have social challenges and unusual behaviors and interests.
However, they typically do not have problems with language or intellectual disability.
Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, also known as CDD, dementia infantalis, disintegrative psychosis or Heller’s syndrome.
Types of autism
These children develop normally for at least two years and then lose some or most of their communication and social skills. This is an extremely rare disorder and its existence as a separate condition is a matter of debate among many mental health professionals.
Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not otherwise Specified, also known as PDD (NOS) or atypical autism.
Signs and symptoms of ASDs
People with ASDs may have problems with social, emotional, and communication skills. They might repeat certain behaviours and might not want change in their daily activities. Many people with ASDs also have different ways of learning, playing.
A child or adult with an ASD might have:
• Not play “pretend” games (pretend to “feed” a doll)
• Not point at objects to show interest (point at an airplane flying over)
• Not look at objects when another person points at them
• Have trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all
• Avoid eye contact and want to be alone
• Have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
• Prefer not to be held or cuddled or might cuddle only when they want to
• Appear to be unaware when other people talk to them but respond to other sounds
• Be very interested in people, but not know how to talk, play, or relate to them
• Repeat or echo words or phrases said to them, or repeat words or phrases in place of normal language (echolalia)
• Have trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions
• Repeat actions over and over again
• Have trouble adapting when a routine changes
• Have unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound
• Lose skills they once had (for instance, stop saying words they were using)
Causes of autism
There’s no one cause of autism. Research suggests that autism develops from a combination of genetic and non-genetic, or environmental, influences. These influences appear to increase the risk that a child will develop autism.
Autism’s Genetic Risk Factors: changes in certain genes increase the risk that a child will develop autism. If a parent carries one or more of these gene changes, they may get passed to a child (even if the parent does not have autism).
Autism’s Environmental Risk Factors: certain environmental influences may further increase – or reduce – autism risk in people who are genetically predisposed to the disorder.
Importantly, the increase or decrease in risk appears to be small for any one of these risk factors:
Advanced parent age (either parent)
Pregnancy and birth complications (e.g. extreme prematurity [before 26 weeks], low birth weight, multiple pregnancies [twin, triplet, etc.]).
Use of alcohol
Maternal metabolic conditions such as diabetes and obesity
Use of anti-seizure drugs during pregnancy
Untreated phenylketonuria (called PKU, an inborn metabolic disorder caused by the absence of an enzyme)
Rubella (German measles)
Prevention of autism
Although the exact cause of autism is not known in most instances, some cases are linked to chemical exposure during pregnancy. Therefore, it is essential to avoid taking any drugs during pregnancy unless the doctor specifically prescribes them.
It also is essential to avoid drinking alcoholic beverages of any kind during pregnancy. Being immunized against rubella (German measles) before becoming pregnant can prevent rubella-associated autism.
Following delivery, there are certain measures that may be helpful in preventing autism. One is early diagnosis and treatment of phenylketonuria (PKU). This is a hereditary disease that is caused by the lack of a liver enzyme required to digest the enzyme phenylalanine.
Similarly, early diagnosis and treatment of celiac disease may reduce the risk of a child having autism.