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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological developmental disorder and intellectual disability. It affects how people with ASD socialize, communicate, and interact with others overall. The disorder is also characterized by restrictive, repetitive behaviors, interests, and activities. In 2012 according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) one in every 68 children (1.5 percent) in the United States were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
What Is the Autism Spectrum?
The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5 (2013) changed the previous diagnostic criteria. ASD now encompasses four separate disorders:
According to DSM-5, these four disorders meet the criteria of ASD. As a result of developmental delays ASD includes two primary impairments:
There are 3 levels of severity which are characterized by social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour (RRB).
If there are not restrictive, repetitive patterns of behavior (RRB) then the diagnosis is a Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder. RRB criteria includes hyper reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment.
Due to stunted brain development, children with autism and people with autism may have difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication. Verbal developmental milestones differ in people with ASD. Research suggests that verbal challenges can lead to a delay in the development of language, comprehension difficulties, literal thinking and speech, poorly modulated intonation and delivery of speech, echolalia (echoing speech), unusual vocabulary and repetitive use of language.”
Non-verbal challenges include “difficulty in understanding social context empathising with others and appropriately interpreting social cues, body language and facial expressions. Gestures are often stiff, stilted or over-exaggerated. Behavioral problems are common particularly in young children. In early childhood a person with ASD may not understand the changing context of social situations. This may present as struggling with interpreting facial expression, gestures and vocal intonation. People with ASD tend to be literal thinkers and avoid eye contact.
People with ASD can become anxious when their routine is changed. They may also experience “erratic sleep patterns, display unusual eating habits, engage in self-injurious or aggressive or hyperactive behaviour, exhibit an unusual posture or gait and have irrational fears or phobias.”
The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention explores novel autism research. Though there is still no cure the disorder is well-managed with treatments and available therapies.
Autism and Medical Cannabis
Conventional treatments for severe autism have high side effect ratios. Many parents who have autistic children are now advocating for the legalization of medical marijuana to help treat some of the symptoms of autism. There have been promising studies that show medical cannabis can ease severe forms of autism and offer patients relief.
There is also an upcoming study at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. It will examine the benefits of medical marijuana for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The study is in partnership with and being funded by an Australian biopharmaceutical company called Zelda Therapeutics.
In the past, children with autism were assumed to be undisciplined and troubled. At one point in history it was even believed that children with autism were possessed by evil spirits. The shame and stigma experienced by parents and siblings of autistic children was disgraceful. Those suffering from the disorder themselves had no hope of leading an full and enjoyable life. Thankfully, that is no longer the case.
If you or a loved one may be undiagnosed but be on the spectrum, speak to your doctor or a healthcare professional. Autism may seem like the end of the world, but our understanding of the disorder has deepened significantly in recent years. As a result, treatments have improved leaps and bounds, and the quality of life of those suffering with autism is higher than ever.