While the term autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been used by scientists and doctors for decades, we don’t have all the answers surrounding this developmental disability. Finding the advice and support autism families need can be challenging as there is a lot of inconsistent information and technical progress can be slow.
To understand autism and its symptoms, parents and family members must be able to discern autism myths vs. autism facts. You should make it a habit to investigate new autism information and check its integrity using basic research.
As a parent, friend, or family member of a person with autism, it is crucial to get the right information and be aware of basic autism facts.
What is Autism?
Autism, also called autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a complex developmental condition that affects a person’s behavior, social skills, and language. ASD is a spectrum disorder, which means it affects people in varying levels of severity.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports autism has risen to 1 in every 59 children in the United States as of 2018.
A common autism myth is that autism is a mental illness. While some people with autism might experience mental disorders, it is not the condition itself. Autism is a neurological condition that affects brain function and causes delays or impairment in a child’s development.
It’s important to note that early diagnosis and treatment may improve some of the symptoms and allow many adults with autism to live independently.
Characteristics of autism
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5™) states three main characteristics of autism. These are general descriptions that cover a myriad of symptoms that vary in intensity and are different for every person with autism.
The three characteristics of autism are:
- Social and communication impairments
Children with autism have difficulty relating to other children and may display lack of eye contact, inability to play with others, difficulty understanding body language, and inappropriate response to questions and/or statements.
- Speech and language impairments
Children with autism may be verbal or nonverbal with varying challenges. Both situations may still involve minor to major difficulties in receptive (receiving information) and expressive (expressing feelings) language.
- Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities
Children with autism might move in repeated motions, repeat certain words and phrases, make specific sound patterns, adhere to a routine, and have unusual fixations.
Signs of Autism
Signs and symptoms of autism can be present as early as infancy and become more apparent in early childhood. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) places them in the following categories:
- Inability to maintain back-and-forth conversation
- Difficulty maintaining eye contact
- Difficulty understanding body language
- Delayed speech and language skills
- Prefers to play alone
- Does not share the same interest as other children/people
- Interacts only as a means to an end
- Inappropriate response and facial expressions
- Avoids or resists physical contact
- Inability to express feelings or understand other people’s feelings
- Repetitive movements, gestures, or speech patterns
- Adverse reaction to routine change
- Hyper or hyposensitivity to external stimuli (sights, sounds, smells)
- Short attention span
- Causing self-injury
- Temper tantrums
- Unusual eating and sleeping habits
- Unusual mood or emotional reactions
- Lack of fear or more fear than expected
- Unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look or feel
Parents and caregivers are often the first people to notice these signs, so it’s essential that concerns are communicated with the child’s doctor during regular wellness visits. The CDC has been pushing for awareness in parents through their Learn the Signs, Act Early program where they provide detailed information and resources on learning the signs of autism early in childhood.
Causes of autism
The exact cause of autism remains a mystery up to this day, which contributes to major debates within the scientific community.
What many scientists and researchers agree on is that there is no one specific cause of autism, and it is likely to be a combination of significant factors and triggers. Most studies have noted a significant link between genetics and autism. A recent study in 2017, the largest of its kind, found that an estimated 83 percent of autism is caused by genetics.
Some of the recognized possible risk factors that contribute to the development of ASD include:
- Having an immediate family member with autism
- Genetic mutations
- Fragile X syndrome and other genetic disorders
- Being born to older parents
- Low birth weight
- Metabolic imbalances
- Exposure to heavy metals and environmental toxins
- A history of viral infections
- Fetal exposure to the medications valproic acid (Depakene) or thalidomide (Thalomid)
It is important to note that these are not causes of autism, but possible factors that put a child at higher risk of having ASD.
Do vaccines cause autism?
The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine was identified as a possible link to the development of autism in 1998 by a study led by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. The study was only conducted on 12 children, but it gained massive attention from the public. The controversial study led to other studies which were inconclusive and found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The Wakefield study was then investigated and later retracted on the grounds of falsified data in a report published in the British Medical Journal.
Years later, another vaccine ingredient called thimerosal, which is a preservative that contains mercury, was identified to be an autism risk factor. In response, the CDC funded nine studies to further explore this hypothesis. None of the studies were successful in establishing a thimerosal-autism link.
The vaccine-autism controversy is one of the most popular autism myths debunked within a short amount of time.
There is no medical test or blood test that leads to an autism diagnosis. The process is simple but can be time-intensive due to the different stages involved. Diagnosing autism can be done in as early as 18 months.
The CDC states that to receive an autism diagnosis, a child/patient must undergo two processes:
- Developmental screening
- Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation
Developmental screening involves a doctor’s checkup where he/she checks the child’s physical and mental health and looks for autism red flags like missing most elements of developmental milestones.
The CDC recommends children should be screened specifically for ASD during the 18th and 24th month, and even after that if the child is considered at high risk of ASD, which can include:
- Preterm birth
- Low birth weight
- Having a sibling with ASD
When a doctor determines further evaluation is needed after the initial screening, then he/she might refer you to a developmental specialist or pediatrician to proceed to the next step, which is a Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation.
The Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation may involve one, some, or all of the following:
- Interview with parents and/or primary caregiver
- Hearing and vision screening
- Genetic testing
- Neurological testing
- Other medical testing
The CDC has also released a section on their website called Myths about Developmental Screening to help clarify issues surrounding autism assessment in children and general misconceptions about autism.
Myth # 1: There are no adequate screening tools for preschoolers.
Fact: This is no longer true today, as screening measures have been established and have sensitivities greater than 70 percent.
Myth # 2: Extensive medical training is needed to be able to diagnose autism.
Fact: Most screening tools do not require extensive training and can be accomplished by paraprofessionals.
Myth # 3: Screening can take a long time.
Fact: Most screening tests only take 15 minutes, and some only need around two minutes of professional time.
Myth # 4: Tools that include information from parents are not valid and unreliable.
Fact: Research has shown that parents are valid sources of information and can help detect developmental disabilities, including autism, by up to 80 percent.
Treatments for autism
There are many types of autism treatments that can help reduce challenges and improve a child’s quality of life.
Early intervention services can help children from birth up to three years of age learn critical developmental skills. Children without an autism diagnosis who have developmental delays are also eligible for early intervention services. Early intervention is available in the US and is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Behavior and communication-based therapies
Behavior and communication approaches like Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), Occupational therapy (OT), and speech therapy are recognized and recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for children with developmental disorders like autism.
These approaches and treatment styles are widely accepted among doctors and childcare specialists as they follow a structure and provide direction and organization for a child’s treatment plan.
Just like their neurotypical peers, children with autism need the same amount of nutrients for good overall health. Getting all the vitamins and minerals needed can be a challenge for many children on the spectrum, however, due to food aversions and other challenging behaviors during mealtime.
Parents who cannot find solutions to their child’s food aversions might choose vitamin supplements, some of which are marketed specifically for children on the spectrum. If you are considering giving your child nutritional supplements, always consult with your child’s doctor to ensure he/she is getting the right nutrients that fit his/her medical profile.
Supplements for autism vary depending on the child’s needs. Most supplements contain Vitamin C, D, B6, B12, Omega 3, and Magnesium.
A recent study led by Professor James B. Adams of Arizona State University found that vitamin supplements, essential fatty acids, and a healthy gluten-free casein-free diet can have a positive impact on children with autism.
The study involved giving supplements and applying the gluten-free casein-free diet to the treatment group that was comprised of 67 children and adults with autism (ages 3-58) and 50 non-sibling neurotypical controls of similar age and gender. The study concluded that the treatment group “had significantly greater improvement in autism symptoms and developmental age.”
While supplements are alternative ways to add nutrients to a child’s diet, another nutrition-based treatment is to remove certain food groups that are believed to have a negative effect on children with autism.
One such diet is called the gluten-free casein-free diet. This diet takes away all gluten and casein from the child’s food intake. Gluten comes from wheat, rye, and barley, while casein comes from cow’s milk.
The gluten-free casein-free diet has gained popularity over time, as many parents reported improved behavior in their child. Although not everyone in the scientific community confirms the effectiveness of this diet, the amount of positive feedback from parents and caregivers is significant enough for experts to conduct further research.
A nutrition-based approach is a healthy approach. The key is to do ample research before committing your child to a new diet. It is also in your child’s best interest to consult a doctor to ensure that the diet is safe and appropriate to your child’s needs and physical well-being.
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Medication for autism
The CDC states that there are no medications that can cure autism or treat the main symptoms. However, some medications can help treat certain conditions associated with autism, such as irritability, aggression, depression, and hyperactivity.
Medical treatments should be FDA-approved and recommended by a doctor. Medication for autism can include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) – these are antidepressants that help reduce repetitive behaviors, improve eye contact, and decrease anxiety.
- Tricyclics – have the same use as SSRIs but known to have fewer side effects.
- Antipsychotic medications – reduce irritability in children with autism (as young as five years old) and teenagers (up to 16 years old).
- Stimulants – increase focus and decrease hyperactivity in children with autism.
- Anticonvulsants – treat seizures and seizure disorders like epilepsy, a condition that can come with autism.
What are the facts about autism?
With the prevalence of the internet and social media, it is easy for parents to get incorrect or inaccurate information about autism. Publishing false information can spread different myths about autism online and can mislead parents into using solutions that might do more harm than good.
Here are some interesting facts about autism worth sharing with friends and family:
- People with autism have fascinating abilities and talents
Everyone on the autism spectrum has something unique to offer the world. Children with autism are passionate, accepting, and open-minded.
- Children with autism want to have friends
Despite the misconception that children with autism are socially withdrawn and anti-social, studies have shown that children on the spectrum want to have friends, but they lack the social and communication skills needed to achieve this goal.
- Autism is a spectrum
Different children with autism will have their own set of challenges and talents. There is a saying: “If you met one person with autism, you met one person with autism.” It is often a misconception that all people with autism have superior intelligence (as in the movie Rain Man).
- Early diagnosis and therapies can help long-term
The CDC ensures parents and caregivers that early diagnosis and proper treatment can have a significant impact on a child’s improvement over time.
- Adults with autism can lead productive lives, just like their neurotypical peers
With proper treatment and emotional support, children with autism can grow up to become self-reliant members of society who have jobs and live independently.
When it comes to information about autism, it’s important to discern which ones are facts and which ones might be myths. The key is to know the reliable sources of information, such as the CDC website and other reputable organizations that support research for autism.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html
Learn the Signs, Act Early program. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/index.html
The Heritability of Autism Spectrum Disorder. 26, September 2017. Retrieved from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2654804
What causes autism? Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/health/autism#causes
Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. 28 February, 1998. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9500320
Wakefield study linking MMR vaccine, autism uncovered as complete fraud. February 2011. Retrieved from: https://www.healio.com/pediatrics/vaccine-preventable-diseases/news/print/infectious-diseases-in-children/%7B24b5933b-b212-4b86-b170-d8097c205a64%7D/wakefield-study-linking-mmr-vaccine-autism-uncovered-as-complete-fraud
Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism.html
Screening and Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/screening.html
Enhancing the Algorithm for Developmental-Behavioral Surveillance and Screening in Children 0 to 5 Years. May 2011. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51096138_Enhancing_the_Algorithm_for_Developmental-Behavioral_Surveillance_and_Screening_in_Children_0_to_5_Years
Overview of Early Intervention. 1 September, 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.parentcenterhub.org/ei-overview/
Gluten- and casein-free dietary intervention for autism spectrum conditions. 4 January, 2013. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3540005/
Autism Diet and Nutrition: How Does it Affect Autism Health? Retrieved from: https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-diet-and-nutrition/
Medication Treatment for Autism. Retrieved from: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/autism/conditioninfo/treatments/medication-treatment
Myths & Facts about Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved from: https://www.kennedykrieger.org/stories/myths-facts-about-autism-spectrum-disorder
Myths about autism. Retrieved from: https://www.ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk/understanding-autism/about-autism/myths-about-autism
Use of GFCF Diets in Children with ASD. An Investigation into Parents’ Beliefs Using the Theory of Planned Behaviour. June 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6667690/
Comprehensive Nutritional and Dietary Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder—A Randomized, Controlled 12-Month Trial. 17 March 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/10/3/369/htm
How nutritional status, diet and dietary supplements can affect autism. A review. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23789306
Autism Parenting Magazine tries to deliver honest, unbiased reviews, resources, and advice, but please note that due to the variety of capabilities of people on the spectrum, information cannot be guaranteed by the magazine or its writers. Medical content, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images, and other material contained within is never intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read within.