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Autism spectrum disorder

Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, affects a child's communication, socialising, interests and behaviours. ASD includes Asperger syndrome and childhood autism.

Autism spectrum disorders are relatively common, affecting around 1 in 100 people in the UK.

Early diagnosis of ASD is important so help can be sought, especially with language and social skills.

Signs of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD)

Each child with ASD will have his or her own individual pattern of symptoms. Sometimes, a child's development is delayed from birth. Other children with ASD develop normally before suddenly losing social or language skills. In some children, a loss of language is the impairment. In others, unusual behaviours (like spending hours lining up toys) predominate.

Parents are usually the first to notice something is wrong. However, the diagnosis of ASD is often delayed. The parents or doctor often downplay early signs of autism. They may optimistically suggest "it's just a phase" or a trivial delay in development. Children with suspected ASD should be evaluated by a professional team with experience in diagnosing autism.

There are three main forms of autism spectrum disorder, and two rare, severe autistic-like conditions:

  • Asperger syndrome
  • Pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)
  • Autistic disorder
  • Rett syndrome
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder

Asperger syndrome

Often the mildest form of autism, Asperger syndrome affects boys three times more often than girls. Children with Asperger syndrome become obsessively interested in a single object or topic. They often learn all about their preferred subject, and discuss it nonstop. Their social skills are markedly impaired, though. They are often awkward and uncoordinated physically.

Compared with autism those with Asperger syndrome often have fewer problems related to speaking and are often of average, or above-average, intelligence.

As children with Asperger’s syndrome enter young adulthood they are at high risk of anxiety and depression.

Pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)

Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) is an autistic spectrum disorder. Children diagnosed with this condition share some traits of autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome.

Most children with PDD-NOS have milder symptoms than children with autistic disorder, but they do not share the language skills and above-average intelligence associated with Asperger syndrome.

Autistic disorder

Children who meet more rigid criteria for diagnosis of autism have autistic disorder. They have more severe impairments involving social and language functioning, as well as repetitive behaviours. Often, they have learning difficulties and seizures as well.

There are two rare, severe forms of autistic spectrum disorder that are considered separately from the others: Rett syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder.

Rett syndrome

Almost exclusively affecting girls, Rett syndrome is rare. About one in 10,000 to 15,000 girls develop this severe form of autism. Between six and 18 months of age, a little girl stops responding socially, wrings her hands habitually, and loses language skills. Coordination problems appear and can become severe.

Rett syndrome is usually caused by a genetic mutation. The mutation usually occurs randomly, rather than being inherited. Treatment focuses on physiotherapy and speech therapy to improve function.

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