A child talking with a counselor

Autism Spectrum Disorder used to be that 1 in every 100 children met the criteria for a diagnosis of childhood autism. Now the Center of Disease Control is reporting numbers more like 1 in every 44. 

But what are the autism spectrum disorders? What causes autism? Keep reading to find out!

Cause of Autism: Is it your fault? 

Autism spectrum disorder is classified as a behavioral disorder that affects social communication and skills, but any time we talk about behavioral disorders, we get i – speech therapyoccupational therapy, and Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA)nto a really sticky conversation. They seem really hard to understand and sometimes they are mistagged for mental disorders. So what constitutes a behavioral disorder?

Is it neurological? Is it an intellectual delay? Is it a genetic disorder? Does it have anything to do with mental health? Or, the question I asked myself over and over….. Is it my fault?

This isn’t where the questions stop. As a parent of a child with autism, I asked all these, and more. Because I didn’t know what autism spectrum disorder ASD was, I had a million questions about how it could present itself in my son. Was it something I did during pregnancy? Was it that red dye 40 I ate in that one popsicle I had? Oh, God – was it because of the time I fell asleep with my phone next to my belly during pregnancy? 

There’s so much information out there, and none of it is verified to 100% accuracy. Search engines, unfortunately, are not going to help you out on this one. Hopefully, however, this blog will help you leaving the conversation with a little more information than you had before.

Childhood Autism: What it is?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, Autism is a behavioral disorder – not necessarily a neurological disorder- that can affect your child’s behavior. You see, for most neurological disorders (take Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, for example), CT scans can identify areas of the brain that are damaged, missing, inflamed, what have you. 

This isn’t the case with autism spectrum disorder. It’s possible that areas of the brain are affected in some way, by something, but we don’t know what and that’s not how people are diagnosed. What typically occurs with the autistic disorder diagnosis, is that your pediatrician or professional working with your child (or even yourself) will identify early signs of autism and present concerns to a trained professional in developmental and behavioral pediatrics,  to conduct a behavioral assessment (more on this in some of my content)

From here, that professional watches and interacts with your child and interviews you. They check off boxes, make notes, and the scoring will identify whether or not your child meets the criteria to fall within the very wide range of what constitutes autism spectrum disorder. 

Autism in itself, by the way, only somewhat recently got its own diagnosis. It used to fall under an umbrella of other developmental disorders, including pervasive developmental disorder and childhood disintegrative disorder, and be misdiagnosed as Asperger Syndrome (the whole history is available in my III course). 

The point being, autism in itself is on pretty shaky ground. It’s a “spectrum disorder” because you can have very few characteristics and fit in the label of autism, or you can have very severe characteristics and also fit the criteria of autism

If you are in the seat of wondering if your child qualifies for a diagnosis, never fear. If you DO meet criteria for the diagnosis, it’s not a signed sealed delivered guarantee that this determines your child’s future. Many children develop to not meet criteria for the diagnosis anymore. Some learn very well how to learn with the characteristics they have and lead very independent lives. Early treatment will help you get services that are proven to help. This is key because so much brain development happens prior to the age of 8. 

Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Most people are familiar with the stereotype of the autistic savant who can recite the phone book or calculate pi to the hundredth decimal place but cannot make eye contact or tie their shoelaces. While this portrayal is somewhat accurate, it does not give a complete picture of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

Autism Spectrum Disorder ASD is a complex disorder that can affect brain development, social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors. Individuals with ASD may have difficulty understanding nonverbal cues such as body language and facial expressions. 

They may also have trouble initiating and sustaining conversations. In addition, autistic children and people often engage in repetitive behaviors such as hand-flapping, spinning, or rocking. 

While these behaviors may seem odd to neurotypical individuals, they can help people with ASD to cope with anxiety or sensory overload. 

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all description of ASD symptoms because there are endless risk factors, causes, and behaviors that autistic children can develop. Plus, their is no certainty that your child’s ASD could affect their life skills. It is a “spectrum” at the end of the day!

Autism is a lifelong disorder, which means there is no cure, but early intervention can help to reduce symptoms and improve child health.

Treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder and causes

What do these services look like? Typically, treatment for autism includes what I call the trinity – speech therapy, occupational therapy, and Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). Not all these services are appropriate for every child, and having the proper education for all of them helps greatly in determining what your child needs. 

We still haven’t gotten to the nitty gritty, though. This is the question that I have spent my career and parenthood trying to answer. I know what autism is classified as, but WHAT IS AUTISM? What causes it?

Unfortunately, we still don’t have an answer that is 100% verifiable. Research states that vaccines do not cause autism – and on their own, they most likely don’t. The genetic factors, like having a fragile X syndrome, could be a cause, but again, on their own, they don’t cause autism. These two theories don’t hold much weight on their own because depending on the individual, you may have extremely similar genetics to someone with autism and not have autism. You could get your vaccines at the exact same time as everyone else and have autism, while your peers don’t. This data doesn’t strike me as conclusive. 

Rather, more research is coming out regarding the whole picture – diet, environmental toxins, reinforcement contingencies, genetics, vaccinations, all of it. We’re not looking at one thing that plagues our society and causes autism. We’re instead looking at a perfect storm of very specific contingencies that make it much more likely for a person to present with the characteristics of autism. I speak much more on this in some of my content, but for the purpose of keeping this blog to the basics, I’ll keep it at that. 

If you suspect that your child may meet criteria for a diagnosis, my best advice (as a parent, teacher and as a clinician) is to not fear the label. Understand the characteristics and get the diagnosis as soon as possible to ensure the fastest delivery of services. 

Keep in mind that autism isn’t like TBI or other neurological or genetic disorders. It’s not something you HAVE, necessarily. It’s something you meet criteria FOR. It’s not an identity. The most appropriate way to view it is that it’s just a part of you, and the services are meant to help learning occur in a way that is individualized and specific to how you learn. By knowing these characteristics, you know how your child will learn best and prevent autism masking – or misdiagnosis. 

Childhood Autism: Final thoughts

When my son was diagnosed at 2 years old, I felt like his whole story was written for him. I was told all kinds of things about what he would never be able to do (he’d never talk, never thrive on his own – scary stuff). His tenth birthday is tomorrow. He not only talks, he reads at a 7th grade level and has a better vocabulary than most adults. 

He navigates conversations very well, uses manners and social conventions. He hosts his own YouTube channel about his areas of interest. He completes chores and daily self-care hygiene routines all on his own and even prepares most of his own meals. 

The diagnosis is one step of a long journey. It might be tough, but no path in life is easy – this just means it’ll be beautifully unique.

Do you need any support in this journey? I’m here to help. Visit Bloom Health and navigate through free resources and blogs that will help you out. And, if you need to talk to someone, you can book a consultation with me!

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