Autism is a growing problem among toddlers, children, teenagers, young adults and older adults. It can be during any of these life stages that symptoms are recognized for the first time. Many times, symptoms are apparent, but if the people close to the autistic individual are not familiar with symptoms, and the professionals who are treating that person for things other than Autism, due to ignorance, the individual will not get the treatment necessary. By “treatment necessary,” I mean the professional testing for diagnosis, and psychological assistance needed to help the autistic person cope with his/her surroundings, heightened sensitivities, and people and environment in general.
I refer to Autistic people as “Autistic people.” They are not people “with Autism,” as you would refer to a person who has MS or AIDS or ME, as “with MS” or “with AIDS” or “with ME.” Generally speaking, Autistic people do not have a medical or physically-disabling disease. There are exceptions when the symptoms are severe; however, it all starts in the brain.
There is reason for me to believe that there might be some genetic influence in the development of Autism. C’s onset is not the only one in my family on my daughter’s father’s side.
This subject is personal. My granddaughter is an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is included in the Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) list. It used to be, until recently, recognized as a distinct and separate part of Autism, but has now been brought into the ASD fold.
It is not easy for me to be in my granddaughter’s company. I will refer to her as “C.” It is stressful for her and for me. I don’t see her often. My daughter is the only person in whose company C feels comfortable. She was diagnosed at the age of 21. She was not initially diagnosed by a professional. She was diagnosed by my daughter, C’s mom!! A few years ago, an article in the Reader’s Digest on Asperger’s listed the symptoms, and every one of the symptoms pointed to my granddaughter. Up until then, she was “in the care of professionals” who thought she had emotional problems, and she was thus treated.
Treatment for autism needs to be very intensive, and so, early diagnosis and treatment are vitally important. Given how complex the brain is, it can be very difficult to correct differences in brain development and function that start so early in life, especially when symptoms are not recognized and treated early enough to make an important difference in the individual’s, or C’s, life.
“We hear so much about autism risk factors during pregnancy and delivery. But our kids aren’t born with autism, they develop it later, [don’t they?] I don’t get it.”
Developmental-behavioral pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president for medical research, gives his take on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), while attempting to correct misconceptions, including the statement above.
“ ‘When does autism start?’ is one of the most profound questions we face in our field. At present, autism can’t be reliably diagnosed until around 2 years of age. However, parents often notice symptoms before then. In fact, analysis of videotapes from children’s first-birthday parties shows that signs of autism are already present for many children at that age, even when parents don’t become concerned until months or years later.
‘Is it possible that autism starts even earlier?’ Research tells us ‘yes’.
In most medical conditions, the underlying processes are triggered before their signs and symptoms become obvious. Consider arthritis. The joints are breaking down and inflammation is setting in years before the aches and pains appear. In dyslexia (reading disability), the symptoms aren’t obvious until a child starts learning how to read. But the symptoms are rooted in brain differences that are present much earlier in development.
A similar chain of events occurs in autism. We know that toxic exposures during pregnancy and complications associated with delivery can disrupt brain processes before birth and shortly afterwards. Mutations in the genes associated with autism can affect how the brain develops and functions, starting well before birth.
Even though the outward symptoms of autism may not be apparent immediately after birth, the underlying brain differences are accumulating. Sometimes the brain can compensate to make up for the disrupted processes. Eventually though, if the disruption was sufficiently severe, the compensatory processes are no longer enough, and symptoms emerge.
This may likewise explain many cases of autistic regression, in which a young child seems to be developing normally, only to lose abilities, or regress, into autism. Perhaps the initial disruption in brain development continued worsening. Or perhaps the compensatory processes couldn’t keep up.”