5 Things You Need to Know About Autism

By Ernst Lamothe Jr.

Jara Johnson, developmental behavioral pediatrician at Rochester Regional Health.
Jara Johnson, developmental behavioral pediatrician at Rochester Regional Health.

There has been a ten-fold increase of autism prevalence in the last 40 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are three million individuals in the United States and tens of millions worldwide who have autism.

“Although autism prevalence has increased, this is likely due in large part to increased awareness and assessment for autism spectrum disorders and changes in diagnostic criteria over time,” said Jara Johnson, developmental behavioral pediatrician at Rochester Regional Health. “That is the case rather than an epidemic increase in the incidence of autism.”

Here are five key facts you need to know about autism in children.

1. Don’t believe the stereotypes

Because autism is still something that is not readily talked about, there continues to be a few myths that continue to stand out. Even in television shows some people with autism are shown in a stereotypical and one-dimensional lens. There are two myths that are very prevalent that Johnson wanted to dispel.

“Vaccines do not cause autism,” said Johnson. “Autism likely results largely from genetic factors, though for some there may be environmental factors that impact risk. There have been many large studies that show no link between autism and vaccines.”

Secondly, people with autism can show affection.

“Those with autism can often give and receive affection, though they may do so on their own terms and it may not be in conventional ways,” said Johnson.

2. There are key symptoms that people should know.

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by differences in social skills and social communication, along with the presence of restricted and repetitive behaviors. Some early signs can often be detected in infants and toddlers, though for some children, their symptoms are more detectable as they age.

“Some children with autism may appear to be unaware of those around them, while others may really desire friendships and relationships, though struggle understanding all the complexities of initiating and maintaining those relationships,” said Johnson. “Children with autism may have limited play skills or difficulties sharing in imaginative play. All have varying difficulties with both verbal and non-verbal communication skills.”

A few of those skills they struggle with could include understanding spoken language, eye contact, gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice. However, the issue is that because it is a spectrum some children with autism may have limited to no speech, while others may be very talkative.

Some children’s autism spectrum disorders co-occur with other conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

3. Boys are more affected

Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls. According to research from Autism Speaks, one in 37 boys and one in 151 girls will be diagnosed with autism. This disorder can be reliably diagnosed by 2 years of age, but most children are not actually diagnosed until after the age of 4.

“Girls may not fit the stereotypes or their symptoms may be misinterpreted,” said Johnson. “Girls may demonstrate less characteristic restricted or repetitive behaviors or fewer of them altogether. For some, especially those who do not have intellectual impairment, their presentation may be more subtle. They may have more social motivation and some of their social overtures may be less atypical than boys, such as somewhat better eye contact. Their autism symptoms may also be masked or overlooked due to additional struggles, such as anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem, or ADHD.”

4. Eye contact information

There is an association with eye contact differences, namely lack of eye contact, and autism. Lack of eye contact can be one of the earliest signs of autism in infants or toddlers. The exact reasons for eye gaze differences are not clearly understood.

“Some research suggests that it may even be an unconscious behavior,” said Johnson. “It’s possible that it could be related to the way the brain processes visual information. Most people are naturally wired to use eye contact as a form of nonverbal communication, which often conveys interest and attention. Those who are typically developing not only use eye gaze as a form of communication, but they also coordinate that gaze with gestures, facial expressions, and verbal language.”

5. Do not wait to see your physician

In 2018, the CDC determined that approximately one in 59 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism at their 18- and 24-month well-child checkups. If you’re not sure if your child has been screened, you can ask for a screening. You can also complete the online screener, print the results, and bring them to your healthcare provider to discuss your concerns.

Much was not previously known about what causes autism, but research is showing that environmental influences and rare gene changes cause autism, which impacts early brain development.

Autism does not discriminate and can affect children of all social classes and ethnicities. Remember to look for the signs and to get your child screened.

“If a parent or caregiver is concerned that their child may have an autism spectrum disorder, it is suggested that they speak with the child’s primary care physician sooner rather than later to discuss their concerns,” added Johnson.

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