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Autism in Children & Adolescents

According to a recent ‘conservative’ estimate, there are approximately 500,000 autism spectrum cases in the United States, including perhaps as many as 1 in 150 children. Autism is the fastest growing population of special needs students in the US, having grown by over 900% between 1992 and 2001, according to data from the United States Department of Education. In 1999, the Autism incidence rate in the US was generally cited at 4.5 cases per 10,000 live births. By 2005, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates one of every 250 babies is born with Autism, or 40 cases per 10,000. As many as 1.5 million Americans may have some form of Autism, including milder variants, and the number is rising. Epidemiologists estimate the number of autistic children in the US could reach 4 million in the next decade (Autism-Help.Org, 2008).

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) includes Autism, Aspergers’ Syndrome (AS) and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, (PDD). ASD involves a history of social impairment before age three. Often the child does not maintain eye contact, does not spontaneously greet or say good bye to family members is indiscriminate to familiar persons and strangers alike does not participate in reciprocal play and does not share pleasure or interests with others.

Children with ASD often demonstrate restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior and often talk on one or two themes, regardless of suggestions from others. The child frequently amasses facts about these restrictive interests but lacks a depth of understanding about them.

Stereotypical and repetitive motor mannerisms and preoccupation with repetitive actions, such as turning things on and off are common.

ASD includes impairment in social interaction (few or no friends of in spite of a desire to have them and ample opportunities for friendships) and a lack of social and emotional reciprocity. Self-chosen activities are usually solitary in nature.

Impairments in communication are evident with difficulty in beginning and continuing a conversation, and one-sided conversations which are repetitive, without appropriate turn-taking.

Children with ASD often display a deficit in their ability to use spoken language socially and the content of their speech is often one-sided with little interest in what others wish to bring to the conversation. They may frequently have difficulty sustaining conversation with others.

One of the most frequent problems involves not coping well with change or transitions in daily routine and becoming upset if small details of the regular environment are not maintained. The child can become agitated and distressed when things do not go as anticipated or desired.

Many children with ASD are often initially diagnosed (usually around age 6) with and Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) due to problems with impulsiveness, inattention, distractibility and sometimes hyperactivity that are seen across settings and over time. Several studies have confirmed the relationship with ASD and ADHD. However ADHD can be over diagnosed in children with ASD because there behaviors may be due to stress and anxiety.

A substantial proportion of children with ASD have one or more co-morbid anxiety disorders. Research has demonstrated that anxiety disorders exacerbate the social difficulties and other functional impairments caused by ASD. Many children receive a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder before the ASD is correctly identified or as a secondary diagnosis once ASD is identified. Research conducted by: Susan W. White, Donald Oswald, Thomas Ollendick, and Lawrence Scahill indicate that:

Anxiety and poor stress management are common concerns in clinical samples of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Anxiety may worsen during adolescence, as young people face an increasingly complex social milieu and often become more aware of their differences and interpersonal difficulties.

Other researchers have identified that individuals with ASD also often have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). One recent study found that children with ASD showed higher frequencies of obsessive and compulsive symptoms than did typically developing children.

Children with ASD may also be observed to have Learning Disorders/Learning Disabilities (usually prior to the 4th grade). In these cases reading, mathematics or written expression ability(s) of the child measure lower than their expected potential and the child may be identified as learning disabled.

Some children with ASD have disruptive behavior disorders and present with a pattern of defiance, anger, antagonism, hostility or irritability and often blaming others for their problems or mistakes. These behaviors can be the result of punishments and consequences for something the child does not fully understand.

How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Help

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH) one of the few empirically supported therapies available for ASD is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). CBT can help with common behavioral problems associated with ASD. For younger children or children with lower functioning forms of ASD, Behavioral Therapy (BT) a component of CBT is considered the intervention of choice.

Cognitive behavior therapy is an excellent, but often underutilized form of treatment for individuals with autism. Dr. Tony Attwood

Cognitive therapy can help the child/adolescent by teaching them to identify and change thinking patterns that are associated with their mood or behavioral problems. Children with ASD frequently have associated anxiety (social anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorders, separation anxiety disorder), depressive disorders and/or disruptive behavioral disorder. CBT involves helping the child/adolescent develop skills to recognize the connection between their thinking, behavior and moods. In addition CBT helps children/adolescents identify their thoughts and teaches them skills to evaluate the accuracy of their thinking. CBT also helps children/adolescents with ASD by developing their ability to socialize in ways that are more appropriate and that will be more rewarding. CBT addresses changes in thinking and changes in behavior utilizing principles proven to work in rigorous research studies. In order to build consistency and to extend what begins in the cbt sessions treatment is ideally based on collaboration between parents,

If you are interested in the proposed criteria the following link may be of interest DSM -5 Proposed Autism Diagnostic Criteria.