By Sanjay Shah
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), affects roughly 1 in 68 children in the United States alone. Around the world, ASD affects tens of millions of young people. Hundreds of millions of children and adults are directly related to someone with the condition.
ASD is a big deal. And it’s not going away.
Who’s Affected by Autism/ASD?
Autism can affect anyone. ASD isn’t transmissible through person-to-person contact or microscopic pathogens; no one is “immune” to the disorder. Every human being, therefore, can develop autism.
That said, autism is more likely in certain populations. Per the National Institutes of Health, a U.S. government health organization, groups at higher risk for developing ASD include:
- Males, who are 400–500 percent more likely to develop the condition
- Siblings of children with autism, though the reasons for this are not well understood
- Children born to older parents
- Children born extremely early (preterm)
- Children with other developmental disorders, such as Fragile X syndrome
Statistics don’t lie, but they only tell part of the story. More so than the causes of many other complex conditions, the myriad causes and risk factors of ASD are not well understood, even after years of research by some of the best minds in medical science.
The signs of autism, fortunately, are better known. Here are seven to watch for in your loved ones.
Echolalia is the act of repeating the same word or phrase over and over again. Children with ASD frequently exhibit echolalia, and it’s often unclear what’s prompted the outburst. Though echolalia is superficially similar to the nonverbal obsessive behaviors that many ASD children exhibit, it’s worth calling out as an early symptom of the disorder in verbally communicative children.
2. Preference for Nonverbal Communication
Many children with ASD exhibit echolalia only intermittently precisely because they’re not verbally communicative—or, at the very least, they have a strong preference for nonverbal communication. Rather than speak out about their opinions or desires, they communicate with hand gestures or movements. Sometimes these movements are subtle; in other cases, they’re uncontrolled, even violent.
3. Strict Adherence to Routine or Repetitive Behaviors
Children with ASD are frequently sticklers for routine. Even small deviations from established processes can cause intense distress and lead to verbal or nonverbal outbursts or meltdowns.
4. Hypersensitivity to Sensory Stimuli
Children with ASD are often painfully sensitive to sensory inputs that seem normal to neurotypical individuals—for instance, the smell of car exhaust or the glow of a fluorescent light panel. Parents and caregivers need to watch for these triggers and plan or remediate accordingly.
5. Improper Use of Pronouns
It’s common for verbal ASD children to “flip” pronouns, using “you” when referring to themselves and “I” when referring to others. As with other verbal ASD behaviors, the genesis for this is often unclear.
6. Obsessive Behaviors
Children with ASD often exhibit obsessive, routinized behaviors, such as lining up toys in neat rows or obsessively counting bits of food. When other children are present or when these behaviors are undertaken on a large scale, they can be disruptive, but they’re frequently innocuous and even soothing.
7. Eye Contact Avoidance
Children with ASD certainly aren’t alone in their aversion to eye contact, but they frequently push the preference to extremes. Parents and caretakers need to establish ground rules for themselves and others such that children aren’t unduly disturbed by sustained, probing gazes.
What’s Next for Children and Parents Affected by ASD
For many parents, receiving an autism diagnosis can be a bewildering, even shocking experience.
First, parents need to acknowledge the obvious: Autism is not the end of the world. It’s not even a setback. Children with autism can—and do—go on to achieve amazing things. After the diagnosis, your child might seem more vulnerable than before, but he or she remains the same beautiful being.
Next: information-gathering. As the parent of a child with ASD, you need to arm yourself with as much reliable, accurate information as possible about the condition. The medical professionals who arrived at the diagnosis can help, at the very least, by directing you to the appropriate resources.
Finally: long-term treatment and support. ASD is a chronic condition—a journey, not a quick trip. Know that many other families, including some with whom you come into contact every day or week, are sharing your struggle right now. Seek them out, along with other sources of support. No one expects you to do this alone. And the good news is, you don’t have to.