Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) represent a group of developmental disorders that affect a child’s ability to communicate and relate. Symptoms, which are usually present by the age of three, include repetitive behaviors and rituals and unusual responses to sensory stimuli.
Children with ASD experience many challenges in their lives, including a host of medical issues that often go undetected and untreated. If left unaddressed, these conditions can become chronic and debilitating and can markedly affect a child and his family’s quality of life. I wrote my new book, Autism Solutions: How to Create a Healthy and Meaningful Life for Your Child, to outline those issues and better equip families to recognize and treat them when they arise. Once you know what to look for and how to take action, you can increase your child’s wellbeing enormously.
Key medical concerns for kids with ASD can include:
- Regular pediatric well checkups and dental visits can be challenging. Finding a friendly medical office can often make them easier for families, as can visiting the office ahead of time to note the sensory environment of the office and make the staff aware of any special skin, noise or other sensitivities your child has. Encourage the doctor to speak directly to your child, regardless of your kid’s perceived communication skills. You might take pictures of office personnel to show to your child before the visit. Providing your child with a toy doctor’s kit before the appointment can help familiarize her with the tools the doctor will be using before she encounters the real deal in the clinical setting.
- Nutritional deficiencies aren’t unusual among kids with ASD, who are generally picky eaters and often are on special diets. Making sure your child receives the daily nutrients, vitamins and minerals he needs for healthy growth and development may be a challenge. Be certain to discuss your child’s dietary and nutritional issues with your doctor.
- Seizure disorders are much more common in children with ASD (4-40%) than in other children (0.5%). Often occurring before age five or after puberty, seizures can impact a child’s language, sleep, learning, social interactions and motor planning. They may also result in a child regressing and losing skills he once had, such as language. Some individuals with autism may experience different kinds of seizures, from mild to complex. Children experiencing mild seizures can seem simply unfocused, spacey, dreamy or may exhibit an “autistic stare.” Complex seizures, where a child loses consciousness for a period of time, are often accompanied by rhythmic motor activity. If you suspect your child may have had a seizure, let your doctor know as soon as possible so that he or she can perform the appropriate testing and develop a treatment plan.
- Genetic and metabolic disorders can be associated with ASD (fragile X and tuberous sclerosis are the most common). Research has dramatically accelerated the search for genes and metabolic pathways that may predispose a child to have ASD. Evaluating a child for these known genetic patterns may help direct families to appropriate treatment. This is particularly true as newer treatments based on these findings evolve that may result in improving ASD symptoms.
- GI disorders are frequent in children with ASD. Symptoms can be obvious: chronic diarrhea, constipation, feeding disorders, food allergies, apparent reactions when eating particular foods and changes in sleep patterns. However, some kids on the spectrum express gastrointestinal discomfort through an increase in behaviors already ascribed to their autism, which can cause doctors to overlook the GI distress. These behavioral clues may include heightened anxiety, repetitive behavior, hyperactivity, aggression, mouthing behaviors (licking, drooling, repetitively putting things in his mouth), increased saliva production, chin pushing and floor humping behaviors (especially with chronic constipation). These behaviors can come on gradually or suddenly, and when observed, families and home care providers should consider whether a GI condition could be the cause. When it is and the child receives appropriate treatment, the symptomatic behaviors abate considerably, leaving your child much more able to engage, relate, communicate and learn.
- Infections, allergies and immunologic problems hit kids with ASD about as often as they do other children, but instead of presenting the expected symptoms, ASD children again may articulate their discomfort through an acute increase in autistic behaviors. When this occurs the child’s doctor should search for potential causes such as ear, sinus and urinary infections. Strep throat is often missed in ASD kids and if repeatedly untreated may result in severe immunologic reactions, producing an increase in obsessive-compulsive symptoms and tics. Untreated allergies not only predispose a child to secondary infections but also interfere with a child’s ability to concentrate, which is especially important for children with ASD who need to be as tuned in as possible to benefit from therapies. The solution is a proactive approach to treating any possible infections and allergies and appropriate treatment.
- Sleep disturbances are present in nearly 45% of children with ASD. They can be severe, prolonged and potentially debilitating. Sleep alterations in these children include difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep and rising in the morning. They may also wake up suddenly during the night ready to play or constantly move around the bed. When a child has not had enough sleep he will be inattentive, distracted, irritable, even emotional the next day. Many may have daytime sleepiness and behavior problems. When your child isn’t sleeping, you usually aren’t either, which only makes treatment more imperative.
- Psychiatric symptoms can also occur in kids with ASD. Hyperactivity, inattention, impulsivity, tics, obsessive-compulsive behavior, anxiety, depression and aggression are present in many. Appropriate medication to ease symptoms can be another addition to a child’s individual multi-disciplinary treatment plan.