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Autism: What You Should Know


Friday, January 9, 2009
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Though autism is becoming more and more common, it is still difficult to understand.  It is normal for parents, family members, and caregivers of individuals with autism to have questions and concerns.  Learning about autism makes living with it easier.  The following are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about autism.

What is autism?

Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears by two to three years of age.  It is a neurological disorder that affects the function of the brain, impacting the development of social and communication skills.  Autism is a “spectrum disorder,” meaning that the severity of symptoms varies from individual to individual.  Currently, one in 150 individuals is diagnosed with autism.  Autism occurs in all racial, social, and ethnic groups and is four times more likely to be found in boys than girls.  There is no cure for autism, but there are many resources for those it affects. 

What causes autism?

There is no single known cause of autism.  Generally, researchers believe that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function.  Many theories are being tested, such as heredity, genetics, and environmental factors.  Though childhood vaccines were investigated as a potential cause of autism, to date there is no research that clearly supports this link.  Parents with concerns about vaccinating their children are encouraged to speak with their doctor.

What are some of the early signs of autism?

Autism affects each individual differently.  However, there are some symptoms that are present in most individuals.  Children with autism may have trouble relating to others, may use limited or no speech, or may communicate in unusual ways (such as screaming or crying.)  They tend not to make eye contact and may engage in repetitive behaviors such as saying the same word or performing the same movement over and over again.  Compared to typically developing children, children with autism may be more or less sensitive to sights, sounds, and touch.  There are also some signs tied to a child’s development, including:

  • No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by six months of age or thereafter
  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions by nine months of age or thereafter
  • No babbling by twelve months of age
  • No back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching, or waving by twelve months of age
  • No words by sixteen months of age
  • No two-word meaningful phrases (without imitating or repeating) by 24 months of age
  • Any loss of speech, babbling, or social skills at any age

(Above list provided by First Signs, Inc.  www.firstsigns.org)

What should I do if I think my child has autism?

Parents whose children exhibit any of the symptoms listed above should arrange an autism screening with their family doctor or pediatrician as soon as possible.  Early intervention is very important when dealing with autism.  Early intervention refers to services given to children before age three.  Research has shown that early intervention greatly impacts the symptoms of autism.  Children that receive services early often make a great deal of progress by the time they enter kindergarten, reducing the need for intensive supports. 

Though those with autism face difficulties, they still have many opportunities for success.  With early intervention, the right resources, and ongoing support, individuals with autism and their families can lead happy and fulfilling lives. 

Resources for individuals with autism and their families:
The Autism Society of Minnesota: Resources for parents, caregivers, and educators of individuals with autism.  www.ausm.org or (651) 647-1083

Minnesota Early Autism Project: Promotes early diagnosis and support of children with autism.  www.meapkids.org or (763) 425-0792

The Arc of Minnesota: Advocacy and support services for individuals with developmental disabilities.  www.thearcofminnesota.org or (651) 523-0823

PACER: Services for parents, families, and children with developmental disabilities.  www.pacer.org or (952) 838-9000 

This is part of an ongoing series of health articles to educate refugee
communities by the Minnesota Health Department. Look out for Mshale’s
investigative report on autism in the African immigrant community in
the following months.

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