What is autism? The disorder that affects more than 30,000 Romanian children

Autism is a disorder considered one of the most common disorders of childhood, more common than cancer, diabetes and Down syndrome. International statistics show that 1 in 68 children has autism, and the data recorded in recent years in Romania shows a continuous increase in their number.

It is a disorder of neurobiological origin that affects children up to the age of 3, by this age the deficiencies are evident and a diagnosis can be established. Autism involves all levels of development, cognitive, behavioral, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, practically all sides regarding the normal development of a child are affected.

Autism is not a disease but a behavioral disorder, therefore the diagnosis can not be established by blood tests, DNA analysis or other clinical investigations. The only way a pediatric psychiatrist can diagnose autism is by analyzing the behavior of the child. Therefore, parent involvement is crucial because he is the first one who must observe if any abnormality arises in the development of the baby.

Warning signs for parents

The first signs that may indicate an autism spectrum disorder may be visible in the first months of the child's life. He doesn't make eye contact, doesn't smile, and may even seem to look right through you, doesn't use gestures, doesn't shake his head yes or no, doesn't wave goodbye or point at things he wants, doesn't like being cuddled or touched, doesn't show interest in typical baby games, like peekaboo, doesn't babble or show other early signs of talking, doesn't always react to sounds, all these may be signs of a disorder.

There are also situations where the child is developing normally until age 2, has all the skills specific to his age, he wals, talks, interacts naturally and suddenly, at the age of 2 ,loses all such acquisitions.

Early diagnosis

Early intervention is the key to optimal results for children with autism.

Scientists have shown that the maximum period of development of the human brain lies somewhere between the ages of 0 and 3 years, which suggests that the best time to begin therapeutic intervention must be somewhere in this range.

Highlights of early diagnosis of autism:

1. Has a language delay. May struggle to express his needs. Some children with autism don't talk at all, while others develop language but have trouble participating in a conversation.

2. Has unusual speaking patterns. Might speak haltingly, in a high-pitched voice or a flat tone. Might use single words instead of sentences or repeat a word or phrase over and over. Might repeat a question rather than answer it.

3. Doesn't seem to understand what people are saying to him. May not respond to his name or may be unable to follow directions. May laugh, cry, or scream inappropriately.

4. Narrowly focuses on a single object, one thing about an object (like a wheel on a toy car), or one topic at a time.

5. Engages in limited imitation. Rarely mimics what you do and doesn't engage in pretend play.

6. Seems content to play alone. Appears to have little interest in other children and usually doesn't share or take turns.

7. Displays rigid behavior. May be very attached to routines and have difficulty with transitions. For example: A change in the usual route home from daycare can throw him into despair or result in a tantrum. He's very particular about what he will and won't eat. Or wants to follow strict rituals at snacks and meals.

8. Plays with objects or toys in unusual ways. For example: He spends a lot of time lining things up or putting them in a certain order. He enjoys repetitively opening and closing a door. Or he becomes preoccupied with repeatedly pushing a button on a toy or spinning the wheels of a toy car.

9. Engages in self-injury, such as biting or hitting himself.

10. Exhibits repetitive actions, such as flapping his arms or hands.

11. Is overly sensitive to various kinds of stimulation. May resist touch, get agitated by noise, be extremely sensitive to smells, or refuse to eat many foods. He may want to wear only clothes without tags or made of a certain material.

12. May overreact to some types of pain and underreact to others. For example, he may cover her ears to block loud noises but not notice when she skins his knee.

13. May be fearful when it's unnecessary or fearless when there's reason to be afraid. For example, he may be afraid of a harmless object, like a balloon, but not frightened of heights.

14. Has sleep disturbances. Many children with autism have trouble falling asleep and wake up frequently in the night or are very early risers.

15. Exhibits behavior problems. May be resistant, uncooperative, or overly active. May be hyperactive, impulsive, or aggressive.

If you find your child as having some of the above symptoms and if they happen with low frequency and intensity, the concerns are to be minimal, but if you find many of the features in the list in your child's usual behavior, he probably needs extra help.

The importance of therapy in autism

Autistic spectrum disorder can occur in any family, regardless of race, ethnicity, geographic region or level of education. There is no cure, but with intensive early intervention, up to 50% of children with autism can lead an independent life.

Through therapy, children learn, in a structured way, how to talk, how to behave, how to be independent. Without therapy autism symptoms worsen over time. Therefore not integrating a diagnosed child into an individualized specific therapy program deprives him of all his prior acquisitions, the child risks finally growing up into an unintegrated and often institutionalized adult.