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Mindpath Health releases what you need to know about autism

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects how people perceive the world around them or interact with others.

Mindpath Health releases what you need to know about autism

Who does autism affect?

Although symptoms usually appear in early childhood, autism can be diagnosed at any age, most reliably after the age of two. Autism is more likely to appear in males, at 4% versus females, at 1%, and has been diagnosed more frequently in the past 20 years. The reason for the increase is not fully understood but can be attributed to increased awareness and education of the diagnosis and symptoms of autism, including Asperger syndrome.

What are the symptoms of autism?

Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning there is a wide range of expressions of these symptoms. Two core symptoms of autism are required for a diagnosis.

  1. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction including

  2. Difficulty or inability initiating and maintaining social interaction

  3. Deficits in non-verbal communication, such as making eye contact, using gestures, and lacking facial expressions

  4. Difficulty in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships

  5. Restricted repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities including

  6. Stereotypic and repetitive patterns of movement, speech, or use of objects

  7. Insistence on sameness, routines, and ritualized patterns of behavior

  8. Highly restricted fixated interests that are abnormal in focus and intensity

  9. Hyper or hypo reactivity to sensory input, such as intolerance of noise or indifference to pain

It is common for people with autism to have other mental health and medical issues including

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Gastrointestinal issues

  • Learning disabilities

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

  • Sleep disorders

How is autism diagnosed?

The first step to diagnosing autism is psychological testing. A clinical psychologist trained in assessing people with autism will use a standardized diagnostic, such as the ADOS (Autism Diagnostic and Observation Scale) or ADI-R (Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised). Additionally, speech and language and occupational therapy assessments often provide valuable information in assessing Autistic symptoms.

Early diagnosis and treatment are key factors in successfully managing autism. Parents concerned about their child's developmental progress should consult a pediatrician or primary care professional to ensure that medical factors like hearing impairment are not a problem. Formal assessment for a diagnosis is most reliable in children aged three years and older; early assessment can also help in identifying children who may need special education services in school.

There are various self-report questionnaires that parents can complete to help them determine if further evaluation is needed. One of the most frequently used is the M-CHAT.

How is autism treated?

Effective treatment for autism includes both therapy and medication vary widely depending on the symptoms of the individual. A psychiatrist, therapist, and care team will work with the individual or family to set goals and decide on what is needed to reach them. For someone with autism who experiences mild symptoms, a major goal could be to receive recognition and social connection with their peers. For someone with more severe symptoms, making it through the day without a major behavioural outburst may be the goal. Since living independently is not a goal that every person with autism can achieve, planning for the future is always key to treatment.

  1. Behavioral therapies. The most common and well-known behavioural therapy for autism is applied behavioural analysis (ABA). This approach is designed to improve social functioning, provide therapeutic guidance for real-life experiences, and is available to people of all ages.

  2. Psychiatric treatment. While there are no medications specific for the treatment of autism, psychotropic medications play an important role in treatment. Medication can reduce symptoms, give a greater sense of well-being to the person with autism, and improve the quality of life for both the person with autism and their caregivers. It's very common for medication to be prescribed to manage behavioural symptoms associated with autism. The best approach to take with medication is to try and stay neutral, assess benefits and risks, and stay mindful of side effects.

How can a person with autism engage with their community? 

Connection to the community is vital for individuals with autism, as it is for anyone. Choose activities that provide affirmation, a sense of purpose, and a feeling of achievement. Activities that enhance empathy, such as caring for a pet, volunteering at an animal shelter, or volunteering to help others in the community can be valuable. Having a job, however limited the hours might be, can also enhance feelings of self-efficacy and self-esteem. Participation in sports and events like the Special Olympics can improve self-esteem and increase emotional regulation.

This article was written by Michael McManus, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health in San Diego, California.

Mindpath Health is a leading provider of high-quality outpatient behavioural health services, offering in-person and telehealth visits. We coordinate care with primary care physicians and referring providers to ensure a focus on total health. We have locations in Arizona, California, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. We offer TMS in California, North Carolina, and Florida.

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