April is National Autism Month, a time when we come together to raise awareness of this disorder that affects nearly 1 in 54 children and almost 5.5 million adults in the United States. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can result in significant communication, social and behavioral challenges. People with ASD may also differ in abilities from other people with the disorder. The capabilities for learning, problem-solving and thinking can range from severely challenged to exceptionally gifted.
Diagnosing ASD can be challenging, as there is no medical test to determine its presence. Health care providers — like nurse practitioners — have to examine the child’s behavior and development to make a diagnosis. While it is sometimes possible to make diagnoses in children aged 18 months or younger, around their second year is when a diagnosis is much more reliable.
According to the National Institutes for Health (NIH), ASD rates are on the rise, but the disorder’s causes are not fully understood. There have been discoveries of rare gene changes, mutations and genetic variations, which implies a genetic component to the development of ASD. There hasn’t been any link found between vaccines and ASD.
Risk factors for ASD can include having:
- A sibling with ASD.
- Older parents at the time of conception.
- Low birth weight.
- Certain genetic conditions, like fragile X, Rett or Down syndromes.
- Prenatal exposure to air pollution or pesticides.
- Birthing complications that led to oxygen deprivation.
- Maternal diabetes or immune system disorders.
ASD occurs in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups; however, males are about four times as likely to have it than females.
There is currently no cure for ASD, but research has indicated that early intervention and treatment can improve a child’s development and lead to a more functional, healthy life. Early intervention occurs from birth to year three and includes therapies to improve speech, mobility and social interaction. It is critical to speak with your health care provider immediately if you believe your child possibly has ASD, as early intervention makes a huge difference.
After a consultation with your health care provider, contact your state’s public early childhood system as they offer free evaluations to see if your child qualifies for state-provided intervention services.
Depending on your child’s age, there are two places to call:
- If your child is under three years old, contact your local early intervention system. You can find the correct contact information for your state by calling the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center at 919-962-2001.
- If your child is over three years old, contact your local public school system, as they will point you in the right direction.
ASD is a growing problem in the U.S., with cases on the rise. This is a disorder that deserves our attention and resources to discover better treatments and potential cures. This April, let’s all do our part to raise awareness and call on our leaders to provide additional research funding.