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Every child has a unique personality. Some are outgoing, while others are shy. But there are certain kids who have trouble dealing with things that most children take in stride. They may not make eye contact or have conversations. They may not like to be touched or to hear loud sounds. If you have a child who acts this way, the problem may be autism.
Why do kids get autism?
Autism is a developmental problem that often becomes noticeable during the toddler years, though it may start earlier. It's significantly more common in premature babies. We know it has to do with abnormal brain biology or chemicals, although the precise mechanism hasn't yet been worked out. Autism appears to be linked both to genes and environmental exposures.
Although the cause of autism is still unclear, doctors do know that the recent increase in autism isn't caused by vaccines. Two leading health organizations, the American Academy of Pediatrics and The Institute of Medicine have studied the issue in depth.. The recommended vaccines don't increase autism; they do prevent serious diseases like measles, tetanus, and diphtheria.
How is autism diagnosed?
More kids are getting diagnosed with autism today than they were a few decades ago. Some of this increase may just be that doctors are testing for it more often now. Children with autism share several characteristics. They may be overly sensitive to sounds, sights, smells, or tastes. For example, a child with autism might refuse to wear anything that's the color blue, or scream when he hears a fire engine siren. Get stuck in routines…a child with autism may want to brush his teeth at exactly 9 a.m. every morning, and get upset if he hasn't brushed them by 9:05. They may prefer to play alone, have trouble talking to people and making eye contact. They may also perform the same motions over and over again, such as waving their arms. Lastly, they may be much quieter than other kids his or her age.
Doctors can diagnose autism with one or more screening tests. These tests evaluate the child's ability to talk, move, and think.
Because each child with autism is different, treatment is tailored to the child. Programs like applied behavioral analysis that can help kids learn the skills they need to be more independent. Medicines can treat specific symptoms that are common in kids with autism, like aggression, hyperactivity, and trouble sleeping.
Some kids with autism may respond well to a gluten- or casein-free diet. Gluten is found in breads and other foods that contain wheat, rye, or barley. Casein is an ingredient in dairy products. Talk to a dietitian before making any changes to your child's diet.
It's fine to try different autism treatments, but watch out for any program that claims to be a miracle, or a cure. Anything that sounds too good to be true probably is.
Autism treatment has come a long way. Decades ago, kids with autism were put away in institutions. Today, they're treated with the goal of becoming independent, functioning adults. If you're worried that your child is showing signs of autism, call your doctor. Get a diagnosis so you can start your child on treatment as soon as possible.
- Last reviewed on 10/25/2011
- Alan Greene, MD, Author and Practicing Pediatrician; also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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This page was last updated: April 14, 2014