Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition that develops early in a child's life. Children who develop ASD carry it with them throughout their lives. People with ASD might have difficulty in social situations, restricted or narrow interests and an oversensitivity to otherwise normal stimuli. Many elements of ASD can be managed if it is identified early and appropriate management strategies are put in place, and many adults with ASD can lead active, healthy lives.

What causes autism spectrum disorder?

Scientists don’t know for certain what causes ASD. Some theories suggest that it is caused by the brain developing in ways that prevent certain parts from interacting in an otherwise typical way. While a specific gene that causes ASD hasn’t been identified, scientists think that it may be the interaction of various genes that causes the development of ASD.

What is the autism spectrum?

As all children and people are different, so are the characteristics of children who have ASD.

Children who have ASD are commonly described as ‘being on the spectrum’, however this can be unhelpful as it implies a qualitative A-B continuum of behaviours. A child with ASD might exhibit one behaviour to the exclusion of all others, or they might have mild forms of several elements of ASD. You might also hear of Asperger’s syndrome, which is considered to be a mild form of ASD.

Risk factors

Some of the risk factors for the development of autism spectrum disorder include:

  • exposure to toxic chemicals and pesticides during pregnancy or infancy
  • exposure to air pollution and phthalates (a hormone-disrupting plastic substance)
  • obesity in pregnant mothers
  • experiencing viral or bacterial infections during pregnancy
  • sex – males are more likely to develop ASD
  • a family history of ASD
  • extremely premature births
  • older parents.

Recognising the signs

Some of the early signs that a baby or toddler might have ASD include:

  • not responding to their name
  • not smiling
  • an apparent disinterest or difficulty in maintaining eye contact
  • not following objects with their eyes
  • being slow to develop speech
  • a lack of or aversion to intimacy with parents and caregivers
  • a lack of interest in other children and games of imagination
  • a lack of the use of gestures such as pointing
  • unresponsiveness to loud noises
  • over-sensitivity to or fear of otherwise normal sensory experiences
  • repetitive behaviours and sounds
  • taking things more literally than otherwise normal
  • speaking in a monotone voice
  • holding exceptionally narrow interests
  • preoccupations with certain sensory experiences.

It is easier to identify signs of ASD in toddlers than in babies because toddlers are typically better equipped to interact with others and their environment. A child health nurse or doctor will be able to help you search for the signs in younger babies.

Management strategies

There is no cure for ASD in the common sense, but management strategies can be implemented with the assistance of specialists and the close involvement of parents and caregivers. While management is helpful at any stage of life, early intervention may be particularly effective. Management strategies focus on the behaviour and development of your child and must be implemented with commitment and regularity.

If you have concerns about your child’s development or you suspect that your child is exhibiting some of the signs of ASD, you should seek profesisional advice.