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April 2nd is a very important day this year.  Do you know why it is so significant?  No, it’s not because it’s the day after April Fool’s Day.  April 2nd is the 6th annual World Autism Awareness Day.  April is National Autism Awareness Month, which has been celebrated since the 1970s.  This month is recognized as a special opportunity to educate the public about autism and issues within the autism community.

 

Autism is present in 1 out of every 88 children in the U.S.  Autism is a complex disorder of brain development. It is characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Some forms of the disorder, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. It’s not uncommon for persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music, math and art.

 

The most obvious signs of autism tend to emerge in children between 12 and 18 months of age.  Autism is 4 to 5 times more common among boys than girls.  In fact, 1 out of 54 boys and 1 out of 252 girls are diagnosed with autism in the U.S.  This condition affects more than the combined total of children affected by diabetes, AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and Down syndrome.

 

There are multiple types of autism, just like there are multiple causes of autism.  Many cases are due to rare gene changes or mutation of genes, while most are due to a complex and variable combination of environmental factors and genetic risk.  When scientists use the term “environment,” they are referring to a wide range of nongenetic factors. These environmental factors include the advanced age of the parents at the time the child was conceived, illness during pregnancy, premature birth, low birth weight, difficulties during birth, oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain, and the exposure of the mother to pesticides and air pollutions.  But, these environmental factors by themselves do not cause autism.  Increasing research suggests that mothers who took prenatal vitamins before and after conception lowered the risk for autism.  Further research indicates that there is no link between childhood vaccinations and autism.  With all this in mind, you should feel free to talk to your OBGYN about autism and the potential risk for it when considering pregnancy.

 

Each case of autism is unique, like the individual it affects.  Some cases show exceptional abilities in visual skills, music and academics.  Intellectual disability, or having an IQ of less than 70, affects about 40% of cases while many have normal to above average intelligence. Some are able to live independently, while others cannot.  About 25% of ASD are nonverbal, but can communicate in other ways.

 

Autism cannot be definitively diagnosed until 18 to 24 months of age, but signs may be exhibited as early as 8 to 12 months.  Symptoms may include the following:

  • The baby does not make a back-and-forth sharing of sounds, there is a lack of smiles or other facial expressions by 9 months;
  • The baby does not make babbling or back-and-forth gestures like pointing by 12 months;
  • Any loss of babbling, speech or social skills at any age

 

If you suspect that your child may have or be at risk of having autism, contact your doctor.  Early diagnosis and intervention offer the best chance for improving function and maximizing a child’s progress and outcome.  Autism Speaks, an organization at the foundation of autism awareness,  has a mission to improve the lives of all those with autism, including the development and delivery of more effective treatments, addressing significant challenges in communication and physical health, and increasing acceptance, respect and support for the condition.  Do your part; help shine a light on autism!

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