By Philip G. Wenger
Autism Spectrum Disorder has been defined relatively recently, and the variety of signs and symptoms associating with different ages are only now becoming visible. What is known is that behavior during infancy largely affects the child’s symptoms for the rest of his or her life. As a child with autism develops beyond infancy and childhood into adulthood, knowing the effects that autism may have on him or her, is key for knowing how to cope with the disorder.
Even though people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may have varying challenges throughout life and from one person to another, there are general symptoms seen in all with the disorder at all ages. Autism presents social, cognitive, and communication impairments and obsessions resulting from the disorder can cause repetitive behaviors, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Other common symptoms include having a small attention span, anger and aggression, unusual reactions to mood less or more fear than expected, and being prone to meltdowns and self-injury. Autistic people tend to avoid eye contact, and among other behavioral challenges, may have unusual habits with eating and sleeping. No two people with ASD are alike, however, and signs and symptoms can easily change throughout life. Understanding the signs of ASD is most important for parents of a newborn. If the parents are concerned at all, they should talk to a doctor early on. The worst approach to concerns of autism is to “wait and see,” because the early action can significantly help the child to develop healthily.
Warning signs in infants at risk of developing autism can be subtle, but simply understanding them can be a life-changer for the child. Babies with autism do not display emotion or joyful expressions, and they may appear to be deaf, as they may not respond to any sound or emotions of others. While most babies watch and follow their parents’ faces or moving objects, ASD prevents infants from being interested in such things, and they largely prefer to be alone. Babies with autism don’t enjoy social games like “peek-a-boo,” and they don’t imitate facial expressions, like smiling at a parent’s voice or smiling when they are smiled at. While most children will begin to babble and begin to understand a few words, children with autism won’t develop these skills normally. Many of these children will experience Regression, which is what happens when a child may suddenly stop communicating and playing in ways already learned. It is as though they “unlearn” important skills in their development process. If these symptoms are seen by 18 months, intensive treatment should be used to take advantage of the young, changeable brain. Early action can prevent the severity of symptoms later on.
Unfortunately, the ideal period for an autism diagnosis is at age three, which is long past the ideal period for autism treatment. Still, steps can be taken to minimize challenges faced by toddlers with autism. The toddlers will show signs and symptoms similar to infants, but while most toddlers’ communication skills should be more developed, autistic children may remain behind in this area. Signs of autism relating to communication include not responding to his or her own name, talking very little or not at all, repeating phrases and words over and over, using “you” instead of “I”, and not ever telling stories. Autistic toddlers will not usually point at objects to show interest, and they do not pretend. They won’t easily make eye contact, and they like to be alone rather than being with other children. It is hard for them to understand the feelings of themselves or others, and they likely won’t notice discomfort in parents. When most toddlers should begin to use sentences of up to five or six words, autistic toddlers may continue to have trouble using words at all. They may have a small range of emotions, and they may experience a delay in behaviors such as talking, playing, and interacting. Interestingly, toddlers with ASD won’t sort or match objects for play. They also will not like to be cuddled, held, or touched very often. Recognizing the signs in a toddler is much better than waiting for symptoms to appear when he or she must go to school.
Children with autism entering elementary school face many challenges resulting from ASD symptoms. Because of the delayed mental development these children experience, they may lack any increased independence. They tend to have poor social skills and have no interest in being like their peers. These children can be obsessive, with habits of hand flapping, rocking, spinning, staring at lights, tapping their ears, scratching, and wheels spinning. They experience oversensitivity, reacting unusually to their surroundings, and because of this, they may avoid any physical contact. Children with ASD tend to need to maintain a strict schedule, and they can become very upset over any changes. Similarly, they play with toys the same way every time. They may not be very concerned with safety or aware of the danger. These children often have abnormal speech, and they sometimes may have a habit of referring to themselves in the third-person. They can find expressing needs or desires difficult, and they might not understand humor. When asked a question, autistic children may repeat the question back, or give a totally unrelated answer. Autistic children can be very clumsy, developing unusual walking patterns, and they may seem cold and indifferent toward others, displaying confusing facial expressions. Entering school can be an unfamiliar and scary process for autistic children, and understanding the possible symptoms and effects during that stage can be helpful.
Teenagers with autism usually are well aware of their own struggles and can be better at coping with them than younger children. Autistic teens tend to be introverted and may continue to struggle with social interactions. Autism prevents understanding verbal cues throughout one’s life, and this can make life difficult for a teenager in high school. New experiences or social interactions can be overwhelming. Often times teens with ASD have few or no real friends and may prefer children and adults to other teens. When these teens are aware of their own differences and lack of relationships, they can often be depressed. ASD can cause aggression resulting from frustration with trying to understand situations, making socializing even more challenging. These teens may need others to play by their own rules, and they often take humor literally. They often are only able to talk about one favorite topic, and not a range of topics, and they can struggle taking turns in conversations. These teens can also be compulsive, needing a strict routine. The can have extreme and unusual anxieties and phobias, and they sometimes make unusual body movements or repetitive noises. They may struggle to stay organized, and may sometimes refuse to go to school. Social norms are stacked against teens with ASD, and it is no wonder many can be depressed and lost in a social world. In some cases, these kids can develop eating disorders while trying to deal with being unable to understand the world around them. If more people understood the effects of autism, then more would be able to help them adapt to the bizarre world they find themselves in.
Furthermore, little is known about changes in autism symptoms into adulthood. Young adults with autism continue to struggle with many of the same issues as they always have. Social cues and emotions are still a total mystery to them, and their conversations are often monologs. As they take on more responsibilities, their compulsive behavior plays out in new ways. They may struggle with planning and self-regulating, and they continue to demand consistency in their life. Household objects have fixed positions, and they will become upset if something is out of order. As self-awareness increases so do the realization of one’s own difficulties. Many continue to suffer from mind-blindness or being unable to interpret the meanings or feelings of others. Very little is known about the autism aging process, but studies show that as age increases, so does the severity of autism symptoms. Social situations remain challenging into old age, and may even become more challenging. The structure becomes even more important with older ages, and those with autism become even less flexible. The ASD adult population has rates of depression much higher than those without autism. Understanding the struggles of those diagnosed with autism and spreading awareness of the disorder can help autistic adults and children feel more welcome in this alien world.
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