Health Break | Published April 17, 2006 | Written by Kristie L. Kaufman, MD

Autism Spectrum Disorders Delay Children's Development

A 3-year-old child who is not talking.

A 4-year-old child who always plays alone.

A 2-year-old child who is constantly rocking back and forth.

These could be signs of an autism spectrum disorder. Autism spectrum disorders interfere with a child's development and socialization abilities and range from a severe form, called autistic disorder, to a milder form, called Asperger syndrome. Additionally, if a child has symptoms of either autistic disorder or Asperger's, but does not meet the specific criteria for either, the diagnosis is called pervasive developmental disorder (PDD).

A child's development is part of everyday life, but learning the signs of developmental delay can allow parents to initiate early diagnosis and treatment interventions.

April is the month of Autism Awareness. Parents, teachers and physicians are actively involved in a child's life and are responsible for taking an active role. Understanding this developmental disorder and individualizing treatment plans are paramount to optimizing a child's potential and future place in society.

Definition

PDD, Asperger's, autism: These developmental disorders are being diagnosed, disputed, and have a significant impact on the daily lives of those families affected. Autism is defined as a "spectrum disorder." Children may display mild to severe developmental delays and characteristics with the following core set of symptoms:
  • trouble forming relationships
  • difficulty understanding or responding to emotional signals from others
  • difficulty using language creatively and receptively
  • self -absorption (in his/her own world and not tuned in to stimuli or people around him/her)
  • repetitive, self-stimulatory behavior, such as staring at a fan
  • repeating words over and over again
  • repetitive motor movements such as hand-flapping

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Autism Research Institute estimate most children affected with an autistic spectrum disorder are diagnosed in the first three years. It is during this time that a delay in a child's language and social skills becomes more obvious to parents. The AAP research has indicated approximately 3 in 1,000 children are diagnosed with an autistic disorder. Autism is four times more common in boys than in girls. Increases in the number of cases diagnosed have been attributed to changes in diagnostic criteria as well as an increased awareness of the condition.

Diagnosis

There are no medical tests to diagnosis autism. A child's medical history, development, and behavior aid a professional in the diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. Increased awareness and better diagnostic tools have enabled doctors to diagnose this condition as well as to help distinguish where a child is on the autism spectrum. Parents with concerns about their child's development should see their primary care physician and if there is delay may be referred to a behavioral or neurodevelopmental specialist.

Two most commonly recognized diagnoses are Asperger's and PDD. Asperger's disorder does not encompass the symptom of language delay and therefore may be diagnosed at a later age when the child has difficulty with peer interactions and social skills. These children in fact may have a very formal vocabulary, acquiring the nickname of the "little professor." And, although they suffer socially, many go into technical fields such as engineering or computer technology.

PDD is known as "atypical autism." This disorder is represented by speech delay as well as the remaining core symptoms. The severity of the symptoms is not as severe as in those children diagnosed with lower functioning autism.

Kristie L. Kaufman, MD, is a board-certified physician, specializing in pediatrics health care. She practices at Centre Medical and Surgical Associates and is a member of the medical staff at Mount Nittany Medical Center.

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