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Understanding Mental Disorder

Autism

Overview of Autism

Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition that impacts behaviour, communication and social interaction, which typically appears prior to the age of three. It is estimated that roughly 1 in every 100 individuals in the UK has autism. More boys are diagnosed with ASD than girls. Individuals with autism tend to have difficulties with social interaction and communication and experience challenges in functioning effectively in school and other domains in life. Autism impacts verbal and nonverbal communication, social behaviour and social understanding, behaving and thinking flexibly and imagination and imaginative play. Many individuals with autism have struggles understanding the social behaviour of others, reading social cues and emphasising with other people. Children with ASD can also find it challenging to play and interact with others and often spend time in solitary play. They can also be delayed in language development and learning to speak to others.

Symptoms of Autism

In early childhood, some individuals with ASD do not use vocal sounds often. In older children, difficulties arise in communicating nonverbally, such as maintaining eye contact or using body language and gestures. Children with autism may also lack an interest in other children of the same age. Some of the main signs of autism include: a resistance to physical contact, wanting to have the same strict routine everyday and feeling extremely anxious if it changes, not comprehending social rules (e.g. interrupting people), avoiding eye contact, noticing and focusing on patterns, details and sounds that other people don’t and holding a deep interest in unusual activities or topics. Other signs include finding it difficult to comprehend what other people are feeling and thinking, finding it challenging to make friends, having a preference to be on one’s own and appearing to be rude or uninterested in other people without intending to. Many individuals with ASD have a very literal understanding of language and find it hard to comprehend sarcasm and jokes. In addition, other symptoms include a sensory interest in objects and repetitive motor movements or activity (e.g. flapping hands, opening and closing doors).

What causes Autism?

The causes of autism are still being explored. Research indicates that autism is most likely caused by a combination of complex factors including genetic factors. Some of the environmental factors that may be associated with autism include very low birth weight or extreme prematurity, the age of parents at the time of conception and prenatal exposure to pesticides and air pollution. Maternal factors including inflammation during pregnancy and issues with a mother’s immune system may also be associated with increased risk of developing autism.

Treating Autism

While there is no ‘cure’ for autism, treatment can significantly improve an individual’s condition. Receiving a diagnosis as a child or adult can assist an individual and their families understand the condition and the support that is required. Some people with ASD also have learning disabilities and other mental health conditions. Since every individual with ASD holds distinctive strengths and challenges, each treatment plan will be personalised to fit the client’s particular needs. Treatment typically involves behavioural interventions or a combination of behavioural and pharmacological treatment. Applied behavioural analysis (ABA), occupational therapy (OT), speech therapy and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) are common therapeutic interventions. ABA is one of the most widely used interventions for both children and adults with autism. It involves a sequence of techniques aimed to promote positive behaviours by using a reward system. CBT can help individuals with autism learn about the links between their thoughts, feelings and behaviours, to identify the thoughts and feelings that trigger negative behaviours and can be effective for managing anxiety and low mood.

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