What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways. Some people with autism are able to live relatively independent lives but others may have accompanying learning disabilities and need a lifetime of specialist support. People with autism may also experience over or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours.

Autism spectrum disorder, also called ASD, is the name used for a specific set of behavioural and developmental problem and challenges that go with them. A diagnosis of ASD means that your child communication, social, and play skills are affected in some way. The word spectrum in ASD means that every child is unique and has his own combination of characteristics which further shape them with a distinctive social communication and behaviour profile. As your child grows and develops, the nature or manifestation of these problems and challenges may change based on their biological and environmental experience. Usually, a person with an ASD will have some form of social and/or behavioural differences for the whole of their life.

What causes ASD?

Results from studies show that ASDs affect one in hundred children in the UK. ASDs affect people from all parts of the world. It affects people of every social economic background and race.

There are many studies looking at the causes of ASD. Although no one specific cause is known, recent studies indicate that ASD may be linked to differences in the brain. In some families, there seems to be a pattern of ASD or related differences in more than one family. This explains the genetic basis of the condition. There is no single gene identified. There are numerous researchers looking at the causes of ASD, it appears to link with the gene may be just one of three to five or more genes that interact in some way to cause the condition. Scientists suspect that a faulty gene or genes might make a person more likely to develop autism when there are also other factors present, such as a chemical imbalance, viruses or chemicals, or a lack of oxygen at birth. In a few cases, autistic behaviour can be caused by rubella (German measles) in the pregnant mother, tuberous sclerosis (a rare genetic disorder that causes benign tumours to grow in the brain as well as in other vital organs), fragile X syndrome (the most common inherited form of intellectual disability), encephalitis or meningitis (brain inflammation). However, bad parenting does not cause ASD.

How early can ASD be recognised in children

Although parents may notice some symptoms of an ASD before the age of 12 months, diagnoses is usually possible by the age of 18 – 24 months. A characteristic feature of the onset is usually a delay in the development of speech, regression in language and social skills. The child will also have repetitive stereotyped patterns of behaviour.

Is there any cure for ASD and what can parents do to help their child with ASD?

There is no cure for ASD. As we have a better understanding of the condition, there are a number of interventions to help the child with different aspects of an ASD. There are some interventions to improve the symptoms, however as this is a lifelong condition, people with ASD will always have some of the characteristic of ASD in rest of their lives.

Parents have an essential role in providing support to children with an ASD. They can help by ensuring access to health services and appropriate education and provide the affection and care needed throughout the child life. Recently, it has been shown that parents can also successfully deliver psychosocial and behavioural interventions to their own children.

As ASD is a life-long disorder and different appearance (for example peer interactions change throughout life) will occur over time. The early diagnosis improves the outcome.

What does the future hold for your child?

This is one of the common questions that parents ask after their child has been diagnosed with ASD. They also want to know the strengths and needs of the child that might influence that prognosis over the child’s lifetime. There is no one answer that every doctor can hand out to every parent who is concerned about his or her child future. The causes of the disorder vary from child to child; therefore the prognosis will vary as well. This also depends on the presence of coexisting conditions, such as learning difficulties, epilepsy and developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia).

In her NHS role, in line with the recommendations of NICE, Dr Kukendrarajah has developed an excellent service for autism spectrum disorder and some of the co-existing conditions. She produced a comprehensive assessment tool which has proved invaluable and is now beginning to be recognized for use by other service providers. She continuously reviews and updates her skills in line with current evidence and NICE/SIGN guidelines to achieve and maintain high-quality services.

Our service, in collaborating with a multi-disciplinary team consisting of speech & language therapists, clinical psychologists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, will diagnose, assess and manage the social communication disorders such as autism spectrum disorders and co-existing conditions ADHD, developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia), learning difficulties, and sleeping and feeding disorders.