Symptoms of Autism Not Listed in Diagnostic Literature

The official symptoms of autism include lack of eye contact, speech and communication issues, and repetitive behaviors. So why are parents seeking treatments to help their children sleep,  cope with anxiety, digest food, or end seizure disorders? Many -- in fact, most -- people with autism have symptoms that have nothing to do with social interaction. So far, we don't know whether autism is caused by, causes, or is just associated with these problems. But we do know they're very real.

Autism and Sensory Problems

Sensory Overload

Most people with autism have sensory problems. They may over-respond to noise, light, and touch. Or, on the other hand, they may crave deep pressure and physical sensation. Either way, hyper- or hyposensitivity can make everyday activities extremely difficult. What child learns well when they're overwhelmed by intense light, constant sound, and scratchy clothes? While there are treatments to improve sensory issues, the best solutions usually involve changing the environment to suit the child.

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Autism and Gastrointestinal Problems

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Children with autism are more likely than other children to have stomach and bowel issues. Some researchers believe that the relationship between autism and gastrointestinal problems is a clue to the cause of autism. Others simply note that many kids with autism have stomach troubles. Either way, it makes good sense to treat the symptoms while also ensuring proper nutrition. Whether changes in diet and nutrition can really help cure autism is still debatable. But no child with chronic diarrhea, stomach cramps and nausea will learn, behave or socialize well. By treating GI problems, parents can help their children become more receptive to school, therapy, and social interaction.

Autism and Seizures

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One in four children with autism has a seizure disorder. Seizures can range from full-scale convulsions to blackouts or brief staring spells. This spectrum of symptoms can make it hard to spot seizures, which can also be diagnosed through the use of electroencephalograms which measure changes in brainwaves. Unlike most autistic symptoms, seizures do have a medical solution. Anticonvulsants can usually control seizures effectively. Some of the most common antiseizure medications includes carbamazepine (Tegretol®), lamotrigine (Lamictal®), topiramate (Topamax®), and valproic acid (Depakote®). It's important to be sure that the right anticonvulsant is selected since some can have serious side effects.

Sleep Problems and Autism

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While there is little research on the subject, it's clear that many people with autism also have sleep problems. Some have a tough time falling asleep; others wake frequently during the night. Of course, lack of sleep can make autistic symptoms much worse: few people think, behave or socialize well when they're exhausted. Parents, too, can be overwhelmed when they're sleep deprived. Studies show that melatonin, a hormone-based supplement, can help people with autism get to sleep. It's not clear, however, that melatonin can make much of a difference in helping people with autism to sleep through the night.

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Anxiety, Depression and Autism

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Many people with autism have clinically diagnosable problems with anxiety, depression, and anger. These issues seem to be more common among people with high functioning autism and Asperger syndrome. This may because people with high functioning autism and Asperger syndrome are more aware of their differences and more likely to feel the effects of being ostracized by peers. But some experts believe that mood disorders that go along with autism may be caused by physical differences in the autistic brain. Mood disorders can be treated with medication, cognitive psychology, and behavior management. If the issues are caused by external issues, though, it makes the most sense to change the environment to suit the needs of the patient.

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Learning Differences and Autism

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Children with autism learn differently. Some have diagnosable learning disabilities such as dyslexia, while others have unusual abilities such as hyperlexia (the ability to read at an extremely young age). Some have a very tough time gaining basic math skills; others are mathematical "savants," achieving far beyond their grade level.

One tool for managing learning differences in autism is the individualized educational program (IEP), a document created by a group that includes parents, teachers, and school administrators. In theory, the IEP makes it possible to support autistic children where they have difficulties while also ensuring opportunities to build on strength. The success of IEPs varies for every situation.

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Mental Illness and Autism

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It is not unusual for a person with autism to also have a mental health diagnosis of bipolar disorder, clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or schizophrenia. It can difficult to tell the difference between "perseveration" (reiteration of sounds, words, objects or ideas), which is fairly common in autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is a separate mental illness. It can also be tough to distinguish between mood disorders and bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and autistic behaviors. If you do suspect that a loved one with autism is also suffering from mental illness, it's critically important to find an expert with solid experience with people on the autism spectrum.

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Attention Deficit, Behavior Issues and Autism

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Amazingly, attention deficit, aggressive behavior and difficulty with focus are not included in the diagnostic criteria for autism. This is very strange, since they're all extremely common. That being the case, many children with autism also have ADD or ADHD diagnoses. Sometimes, medications that help with ADHD (such as Ritalin) can help children with autism to improve behavior and focus. Just as often, however, they make little difference. More likely to be helpful are changes in the environment that lesson sensory distractions and annoyances and support focus. Other tools to help include social stories, hands-on learning methods, and sensory integration therapy.

What Symptoms of Autism Trouble You Most?

Have you experienced any of the symptoms listed in this article? How about symptoms I left out? Which symptoms of autism do you find most troubling?

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