Affecting children and persisting into the adult years, spectrum disorders can significantly impair a child’s ability to engage in society and perform everyday functions. Known to exist in varying levels of severity, spectrum disorders are named such because of the way they can manifest differently from child to child.
The most common spectrum disorder today is autism spectrum disorder or ASD which occurs at a rate of 1 in every 160 children globally. And although some individuals might experience the symptoms of ASD more profoundly, modern day research has made it possible for medical experts to provide patients with effective therapy that can help them cope more efficiently for independent living.
Spectrum disorders are relatively common, affecting 1% of the global population. And because they can cause significant impairment especially as a child ages, it’s imperative to diagnose the condition as early as possible in order to provide intervention and help the child develop skills that can reduce the severity of the condition.
Unfortunately, not all parents know the signs of spectrum disorders, and neither do they fully understand the risk factors involved. But by familiarizing with the different factors that increase the risk of a diagnosis, individuals might be able to determine the likelihood of a family member or a child having the condition.
- Family history – There is strong evidence that suggests that spectrum disorders are genetic. In families where parents or children have autism, an unborn baby’s risk of also having the condition rises up to 9 times. If the first child has autism, the next has an 18% chance of also having it. For identical twins, if the first baby has it, the second has a 95% chance. For fraternal, the risk is 31%.
- Sex – Boys are four times more likely to receive a diagnosis for a spectrum disorder compared to girls. And while the reasons for this are unknown, couples with a family history of spectrum disorders are cautioned of the increased risk when conceiving a male child.
- Parental ages – Research has established a link between the age of a child’s parents and the risk for developing a spectrum disorder. It seems that the older the parents are at the time of conception, the higher the risk, however the exact reason for this remains unknown.
- Preterm birth – Babies that are born before 26 weeks of gestation have a much higher chance of developing autism or other spectrum disorders. The same goes for preterm babies who experience more complications during birth, which is associated to the child’s altered cognitive development.
- Presence of other disorders – Babies born with pre-existing medical conditions like chromosomal aberrations are at a higher risk of receiving a spectrum disorder diagnosis later in life.
There are some studies that suggest that environmental factors may also play a role in the development of spectrum disorders. Things like pollution, viral infection, and even exposure to certain chemicals have been thought to contribute, however further studies are required. What’s absolutely certain however is that vaccinations do not contribute to any of these disorders.
There are three main types of spectrum disorders, namely autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified or PDD-NOS. As of 2013 however, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has categorized Asperger’s as a subtype of autism.
In general, all of these conditions resemble one another, with the distinction of severity. Autism tends to be the most severe, while Asperger’s is labelled ‘high functioning autism.’ On the surface, all of these spectrum disorders are likely to manifest the following symptoms:
- Unresponsive to being called by name
- Repetitive, non-goal directed behavior like hand flapping
- Delayed or no language development
- Avoidance of eye contact
- Deficit in language comprehension
- Non-verbal communication such as grunts or pointing
- Reliance on routines and patterns
- Aggressive or violent behavior
- Self-stimulatory or self-injurious behavior
- Sensitivity to different textures, tastes, sounds, and stimulation
- Inappropriate or abnormal interaction
- Lack of empathy
- Difficulty learning
- Repeating words
- Strange, unnatural postures
- Not engaging in play with children of the same age
In essence, a child with autism might seem as though he or she is living in their own world, unable to perceive others around them. They also rely heavily on routines, becoming upset when their schedules or environments change.
Remember that these symptoms can occur in varying degrees of severity. So, while a child with severe autism spectrum disorder might be difficult or even impossible to communicate with, others with high functioning disorders may be able to socialize and function with mild to moderate impairment.
It’s also important to note that while children may seem severe early on, prompt and efficient therapy can help them cope and become independent as they age. Early intervention is the cornerstone of effective spectrum disorder treatment, giving children a 66% chance of becoming independent adults.
There are a number of theories that try to explain what happens in the brain of a child with autism. One such theory suggests that there are structural changes in areas of the brain that control functions like language, socialization, and emotion, among other things. Then there are some that hypothesize that the condition might be the result of too many connections between neurons than what’s considered normal.
Another theory speculates that the brain’s function is more erratic and less predictable in children with spectrum disorders, making it difficult to regulate the many different functions that occur. Whatever the case, all of these studies may have some substance to them. But we have yet to fully understand the exact cause or reasons behind the condition.
Presently, there is no cure for spectrum disorders and interventions are mainly focused on minimizing the effects of the condition so that the patient can achieve the highest level of functioning and independence possible given the severity of his or her condition. So, experts combine medications and behavioral therapies in order to assist patients towards improved functioning.
Today, there are only two medications approved by the FDA for children with autism, and those are aripiprazole and risperidone. Prescribed for children ages 6 to 15, these drugs help manage irritability, which is particularly important for children with self-injurious behavior. The medication also reduces the risk of the child inflicting injury on family members and therapists, which is common among more aggressive patients.
Other than that, experts recommend intensive therapy starting from the time of diagnosis up until it’s deemed beneficial. Therapies can focus on a range of aspects of daily life, from motor skills, to life skills, and even job acquisition assistance.
Treatment plans change from patient to patient since the manifestations of the condition tend to vary. However, it is common for patients to require some if not all of the following treatments:
- Speech and language therapy – The goal of this therapy is to assist patients in expanding their vocabulary, expressing themselves, and understanding others around them. Social cues are also part of the treatment, wherein they’re provided lessons on how to understand non-verbal gestures and expressions. This can be particularly helpful because of the delay in language and speech development that most patients experience, as well as the abnormal socialization patterns they manifest.
- Physical therapy – Awkward postures, limited range of motion, and impaired motor functioning and planning are also some of the symptoms of spectrum disorders. Through physical therapy, patients can learn how to master their body and prevent injuries and accidents. For children with Asperger’s, physical therapy can also help reduce clumsiness associated with the condition.
- Occupational therapy – Many of the symptoms of spectrum disorders can make it tough to navigate the world and engage in daily activities. But occupational therapy works with goal-directed methods to help children excel in their hobbies, interests, and responsibilities. This specific branch of therapy places the patient in real life situations – like cooking in a kitchen, taking a bath, or sitting in a classroom – to help them develop the proper skills for specific tasks.
Early diagnosis and intervention are imperative in the process of treating spectrum disorders. By giving the child an early lead, they can learn the skills necessary to overcome the symptoms of their condition. Today, thousands of children with spectrum disorders have been successfully treated, allowing them to take on jobs, establish their own families, and care for themselves without their condition getting in the way.