Treating autism in adults or children usually requires a multi-disciplinary approach, but I can offer some insights into the condition itself, and the role a psychiatrist can provide in helping with this disorder.
What Is Autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a range of complex neurodevelopmental disorders. A person with autism typically has difficulty with social skills and communicating, and often exhibits restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior. The most severe form of autistic disorder is frequently called autism or classical ASD, while the milder form is known as Asperger’s Disorder. In between these two polar points are other variations of the disorder that vary widely from individual to individual. When a person fits the criteria of neither diagnosis, but is substantially affected by some of the symptoms, he or she may be appropriately diagnosed with pervasive development disorder not otherwise specified (PDD NOS).
Experts believe that some form of autism afflicts six children out of every 1,000. It is seen in every ethnic and socioeconomic group, and affects males four times more often than females.
What Are Common Signs of Autism?
A key autism indicator is impaired social interaction. A baby with ASD may be unresponsive to people or become fascinated with one item for long periods to the exclusion of all others. Children with the disorder may also appear to develop normally at first, then suddenly withdraw and avoid contact or interaction. They may fail to respond to their names and refuse to make eye contact. Social clues that are obvious to most people may make no sense to them and they do not respond to changes in tone of voice or facial expressions. They have difficulty understanding what others are thinking or feeling because they do not watch or interpret other people’s faces for clues about what is the correct intention or behavior.
Many children with ASD exhibit repetitive behaviors such as rocking, twirling, or even harmful behaviors such as biting and head-banging. They usually do not speak until later than usual, and when they do, may use a sing-song voice. They often do not know how to play or talk with other children and instead focus both their activities and speech on a narrow range of favorite topics.
Do Symptoms Change Over Time?
For many children, with proper treatment, symptoms can improve with age. However, there are other signs that should be watched for. Children whose language skills disappear early–such as before the age of 3–seem to have a higher risk of developing epilepsy or seizure-like brain activity, which may need to be controlled with medication. Some children with ASD may become depressed or exhibit behavioral issues when they reach adolescence. They may need treatment modification or medication at this time to help them as they transition to adulthood.
How Is Autism Treated?
There is no cure for ASDS. The therapies and behavioral interventions currently used are designed to remedy specific symptoms and can bring about significant improvement.
Most healthcare professionals agree that intervening at the earliest age possible can help achieve the greatest results when it comes to ASD. Typically, autism treatment involves educational/behavioral interventions, and often medication.
With educational/behavioral interventions, therapists use very structured and intensive training sessions to help children develop social and language skills.
A psychiatrist such as myself may also be called in to prescribe medications for treatment of specific autism-related symptoms such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some antipsychotic medications are FDA approved to treat severe behavioral problems. Seizures can be treated with anticonvulsant drugs prescribed by a neurologist. The same medications used for treating people with attention deficit disorder can be used to help decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity.
With proper treatment, people with ASD can lead productive lives. They may continue to need services and a support network, but many are able to work and live independently.