Autism is a layman’s term for a range of conditions. Both autism and the equally well-known asperger syndrome are classified as an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).

ASD are grouped into three categories:

  • difficulty understanding people’s emotions and feelings
  • problems with language and communication
  • unusual thought patterns and physical behaviour

There may be other conditions as well as autism — such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

How is autism diagnosed?

It is possible to spot unusual ‘AS’ behaviours quite early, but it may not be clear whether this signals asperger's or another condition within the autistic spectrum.

To decide on the correct autism treatment, professional expertise is required but, as a general rule, asperger's sufferers show much milder symptoms relating to social interaction. They don’t have language difficulties. People with ‘classic’ autism will have significant problems with language and learning difficulties.

Asperger syndrome sufferers usually have ‘normal’ intelligence but they can find it difficult to understand figurative speech and certain kinds of humour.

Some severe types of autistic spectrum disorder may be spotted as early as six months but milder forms may only emerge as someone grows older. This makes autism symptoms less easy to spot. Concerns should be discussed in depth with a specialist before initiating any formal assessment because many adults fear being diagnosed as they think it will label them as ‘disabled’. On the plus side, such diagnosis gives family and friends a better understanding of someone’s behaviour. Their employment is also more protected by disability laws.

Is autism treatment available?

While ‘AS’ conditions cannot be cured, much treatment and support is available. Some programmes involve hours of intensive work and generally focus on a sufferer’s communication skills, social interaction and cognitive abilities.

Medication may also help reduce common autism symptoms such as repetitive thoughts and behaviour, aggression or tantrums.

Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as clomipramine, fluoxetine and paroxetine are used in certain cases to boost serotonin levels but a more common medication is melatonin for helping a sufferer sleep normally. Natural sleep is often affected by ASD.

Where autism also involves ADHD, methylphenidate may be prescribed for young people to reduce their symptoms.

Can anything prevent autism?

Genetic factors are thought to play a role, so parents could make each other aware of their family histories to assess the risks of having a child. And if a couple already has a child with ASD there’s a higher risk another may be born to them.

Environmental factors are also thought to play a part. While air pollution, pesticides and a mother’s exposure to rubella during pregnancy are difficult to prevent proactively, smoking during pregnancy is one factor you can control.

By being aware of autistic spectrum symptoms and taking early action to get the support required, a healthy and fulfilling life can be maintained and improvements achieved.

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