Recognizing and treating autism

Recognizing and treating autism

Autism derives from the Greek word “autos”, meaning “self”, because people with autism have little or no contact with other people and seem to live withdrawn into themselves in their psychological world. But not because they don’t want it, but because, for the reason that is still unknown today, they cannot essentially get in touch with their environment, understand it and express their feelings. In Germany, it is estimated that around 35,000 people live with autism; boys are three to four times as likely to be born with this disorder.

Definition of Autism

Autism per se does not refer to a single, specific disorder. The term autism encompasses a whole range of developmental disorders that affect different areas to very different degrees. The spectrum ranges from a simple behavioural problem and above-average intelligence to a severe disability.

Although the majority of people with autism are intellectually handicapped to a greater or lesser extent, they often have unique abilities in certain areas. Some have an incredible memory and can quickly memorize entire telephone books or street maps or are swift at specific arithmetic tasks. Autistic traits can also be found as a result of or associated with other illnesses or intellectual disabilities.

So, there is a broad spectrum of autistic disorders. However, the distinction is not always easy and, therefore, at times, quite controversial even among experts.

 

Syndromes and forms of autism

There are now around 30 syndromes that are often associated with autism or at least with more or less pronounced autistic symptoms. However, when one speaks of autism, one usually means the severe, classic manifestation of autism, namely the so-called early childhood autism, also known as Kanner syndrome. In addition, a less pronounced form of autism is often mentioned, namely Asperger’s syndrome.

Autism: causes and diagnosis

For a long time, parents were blamed when a child was diagnosed with “early childhood autism”. Mistakes in parenting and “fridge mothers”, i.e. mothers without warmth and care for their child, should be the causes—serious, incriminating allegations for parents who themselves were helpless in front of their own children. In the meantime, however, this assumption has been scientifically refuted. It is now known that autism is not the result of a single external influence but has a variety of causes.

A genetic predisposition plays a decisive role, whereby, according to scientists, not a single gene is the basis, but several genes are involved in the development of autism. Various other disorders are also assumed. For example, there are indications of brain dysfunctions that may impede perception and information processing.

 

Kanner Syndrome (Early Childhood Autism)

Early childhood autism always becomes apparent before the age of three. The first abnormalities appear soon after birth. The infants often drink poorly and have trouble sleeping. Then, it is usually noticeable that they do not make eye contact and do not react to smiles, for example. Also, as a rule, no own mind play expresses or accompanies the child’s feelings. The typical behaviour of repeating syllables may also be absent.

Language development often fails to materialize, and when a child begins to speak, the intonation usually needs to be more familiar. There is no interest in the people around; the child doesn’t seem to notice them. No behaviour is imitated either, such as waving back when saying goodbye. Children often defend themselves against physical contact by screaming or crying, including hugs. In the course of development, more and more abnormalities are added. The children often stand out because they do not play with their peers and do not seek contact with them. Most of them develop so-called stereotypes, which are recurring sequences of movements, such as spinning a small wheel or bobbing the body back and forth.

Some children are prone to self-harm, such as biting or hitting themselves. Special interests are usually absent. And they almost always react in a panic to changes, for example, when furniture is suddenly rearranged in the room, or a different route is taken when shopping.

Asperger’s as a form of autism

Asperger’s syndrome is much milder than early childhood autism. The children usually learn to speak very well and have average or above-average intelligence. This makes diagnosing it much more complex, and the disease is often not recognized until preschool age.

However, the first symptoms are noticeable before age three: the children are usually very clumsy in their movements, and the main feature is a severe contact disorder; friendships with other children rarely exist. Furthermore, they are conspicuous by their lack of empathy, which causes them to get offended everywhere and be socially largely isolated.

Early diagnosis possible

The diagnosis of early childhood autism can now be made very early with the help of unique checklists. And that’s a good thing because the earlier the diagnosis is made, the sooner the course can be set for better child development. It is known, for example, that the greatest successes in language development are achieved when support is started before the age of two.

If, on the other hand, you only start when the child is already four or five years old, you will only be able to make corrections. Still, you cannot change anything fundamentally about language development. However, it is essential to think about the possibility of an autistic disorder in the first place. Parents who see their child’s behaviour as abnormal should discuss this with their paediatrician because no one knows a child better than their own parents in the early days, not even the paediatrician, who usually only sees a child for a short time now and then.

The problem here is that there are so-called late developers who develop more slowly than other children. If in doubt, a specialist should, therefore, be consulted, which would be a child and adolescent psychiatrist in this specific case.

 

treat autism

According to the current state of knowledge, autism cannot be cured, neither with medication nor with other methods. The treatment of a person with autism today consists of the best possible support to help them live as independently as possible. The treatment plan will vary from person to person and will depend on the child’s resources and abilities.

Behavioural therapy methods, for example, have proven their worth in teaching those affected by social and communicative rules and arousing their interest and abilities to interact with their environment. Furthermore, individually appropriate school support is necessary to create the possibility of professional employment later in life.

Drug treatment may be necessary at times, but then aims to address associated symptoms such as depressed mood, compulsions that cause self-harm, or extreme restlessness. Ultimately, the individual patient and their particularities will determine the treatment type and the goal that can be achieved.

outlook

Ideally, it is possible for those affected to live relatively independently later and carry out various activities. In reality, however, only about one to two per cent of those affected lead an almost everyday life in adulthood. Parents should always be aware of this. Not to give up but to avoid overtaxing yourself and your child with expectations that are too high at some point.

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