April is National Autism Awareness Month

April 25, 2019

Ron Stahl, MD

Did you know that approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)? Since April is National Autism Awareness Month, I would like to use this column to hopefully increase our community’s knowledge of autism.

Autism spectrum disorder refers to a complex neurodevelopment disorder that involves repetitive types of behavior as well as difficulty with social communication and interaction. The spectrum can affect individuals differently and range from various degrees of severity. One person may not be able to effectively communicate, while another could be functional in society but have difficulty with social interactions (as exemplified in the movie “The Accountant”). The exact cause is unknown but research shows it is five times more common in boys than girls.

Autism can express itself very subtly, sometimes being nothing more than a child who is focused on a single toy all the time or rarely makes eye contact. Frequently the diagnosis is not made until later in childhood as difficulty with social interaction becomes evident.

Early signs that can lead to the diagnosis are such things as no single words by age 16 months or two-word phrases by age two; no response to their name, or avoiding or having poor eye contact, just to name a few.

Later signs include unusual use of language, difficulty making friends, or preoccupation with certain objects or subjects.

Many adults with some spectrum of autism disorder are able to be very functional in society.  I have known people on this spectrum who you would otherwise have no idea. Only when you get to know them well do you realize that they view the world somewhat differently – preferring to avoid large groups, work by themselves. Often they remain focused on a single subject for several hours at a time. They may appear to be ignoring you when in reality they are often deep in thought and do not recognize that they may be perceived as rude.

The cause of autism is unknown, but scientists do believe there are both genetic and environmental factors. It is known that autism is more common in children born prematurely. Studies have shown that vaccination to prevent childhood infectious diseases does not increase the risk of autism in the population. Some studies have suggested that delayed cord clamping at birth can decrease the incidence of autism.

Treatment for this disorder is mostly behavioral. Medication can help with certain related symptoms if they occur such as depression or anxiety. Early recognition and intervention is key in order to help increase the child’s ability to successfully interact with society.

The spectrum of autistic disorders is very wide and complex. Research continues in an effort to better understand this behavioral disorder and the hope is that they will find ways to help prevent and better treat it in the near future.

We want every child in our community to enjoy the best life possible. If you believe your child may suffer from ASD, talk with your pediatrician. If your family needs a pediatrician, call 1-800-424-DOCS (3627) to get connected with the right care for your child.

Dr. Ron Stahl is the chief medical officer at Wilson Medical Center.