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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). By Our September Student Pharmacist, Rebecca Miller.

Autism written on the wipe board

Most people have heard the term autism before, but few have a good understanding of what it actually is. Autism is a diagnosis used to identify a group of neurodevelopmental disorders which range widely in symptoms and levels of disability. Nearly 1.7% of children in the US suffer from an autism spectrum disorder according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – that’s one kid out of every 59. Autism is not an intellectual disability; while some individuals on the spectrum may also suffer from intellectual disability, the majority do not.

The saying goes that ‘if you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, then you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum’; that is to say that the characteristics of autism are so diverse that any two people on the spectrum are more likely to have nothing in common than to be similar. The severity of the disorder is, likewise, very individual. This is because severity is based on the resulting level of impairment in intellectual, social, educational, and occupational function. Even if two people have the same symptom, difficulty driving, for instance, if one of them lives in a city with public transportation while the other lives in a rural area, it would be much more difficult for the second person to find a job or attain a desired college degree than the first.

Generally, there are two core characteristic types which are shared by all autism-spectrum disorders: difficulty with social interaction and restrictive or repetitive behaviors. How these characteristics manifest, however, can take a multitude of forms, such as:

  • Difficulty understanding when it is their turn to speak in conversation
  • Poor eye contact or lack of friendly smile
  • Difficulty with relationships
  • Snapping fingers, lining up objects, repeating a phrase or sound
  • Distress in response to small changes in routine
  • ‘Special interests’ or topics about which the person is especially knowledgeable or passionate
  • Indifference to pain or temperature
  • Inability to wear clothing with tags
  • Visual fascination with lights or motions

Examples are varying and exhaustive, can change as a person grows, and there is no set list.

autism genetics

The exact causes of autism are unknown. There are many theories and it is likely that there are multiple possible causes. Because a first degree relative with an ASD diagnosis is a risk factor for developing the disorder, there has long been the theory that autism is a genetic condition. While there is no single gene which causes autism (as is the case for sickle cell disease, hemophilia, and cystic fibrosis), researchers have recently identified 18 different genes which contribute to the development of ASDs.

Treating autism is a difficult proposition. There is no actual treatment for autism, only treatments for some of the symptoms, such as speech therapy to improve verbal communication, medication for anxiety, and counseling/coaching on appropriate skills. There has been a large push in recent years to diagnose children with ASD as early as possible because the earlier these treatments begin, the better their quality of life and the more independent and productive they will be.

Autism and Vaccines

Although there has been a large movement against vaccination of children based on the argument that children who are vaccinated are more likely to develop autism, there have been no reputable studies that back this up. There have, in fact, been numerous studies to the contrary. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that begins before birth and, therefore, before a child is vaccinated.

A note from the author…

I was not diagnosed with ASD until I was 27. I cannot tell you how many difficulties that I encountered in my life because I did not know about my condition and the difference that it would have made if I had received treatment as a child, teen, or even young adult. Luckily, I eventually learned the skills that I needed to succeed and am living happily with a husband and daughter, about to graduate with a doctoral degree. My story turned out well, but not all of them do. If you see signs of autism in your child, please, please, please talk to your child’s pediatrician. It cannot hurt to talk to them and it could make all the difference.

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