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Behind the Silence - A health feature on Autism

Behind the Silence - A health feature on Autism

Issue 79 April 2011

Autism can be frightening, and it is definitely a stressful illness. Dr Noreen Kassem investigates this debilitating condition and identifies possible strategies to help.


Autism is a complex developmental disability, and is growing among children. It is more common in western, developed nations with one out of 110 children diagnosed. However, there is very little known about this alarming condition and medical research does not yet confirm many aspects of its causes, progression and treatment.

 Autism typically appears in the first three years of life and may be marked by the child’s inability or difficulty to communicate and interact with others. It is considered a spectrum disorder because autism affects individuals in varying ways and degrees. There is not a single known cause for autism and it is not yet certain that all disorders classified under the autism spectrum are due to this disease. Some doctors argue there is not an “epidemic” of autism, but that the growing numbers are due to increased awareness and diagnosis, as well as the wide range of disorders classified as autism. Autistic disorders include Asperger’s syndrome, which is similar to autism but with normal language development; Rett syndrome, which only occurs in females; and other childhood disintegrative disorders. 




Disorders in the autism spectrum are linked to abnormal physical and chemical development in the brain. However, the exact causes or types of abnormalities are not yet determined. Several factors are thought to lead to autism, though they remain unproven. Some of these include: 



Chromosomal or gene abnormalities and other nervous system problems that run in families may lead to autism. Studies show that identical twins are more likely to both have autism than other siblings are. 

Nutrient Deficiencies

Nutritional problems caused by the body’s inability to process or absorb certain vitamins and minerals that are important for the healthy growth and maintenance of the brain and spinal cord are thought to be factors in autism.


This is a little known factor, but due to the higher rates of autism in developed nations, chemical additives and preservatives in foods and water may be linked to some cases of autism. 

Digestive Problems

Many medical studies have found that children diagnosed with autism may also suffer from other physical medical conditions including gastrointestinal or digestive problems. 

Immune System Problems

Like digestive disorders, some children with autism symptoms may also have immune system disorders, some of which may include SCID and thymic dysplasia. Research indicates that when these are diagnosed and treated, there is vast improvement in some cases. 

Environmental Factors

Toxins and pollutants from both the indoor and outdoor environment are thought to contribute to many infections and illnesses, including the development of autism. A recent study published in Environmental Health Perspectives reports that children who lived close to busy motorways at birth have twice the risk of developing autism. 




Children with autism may show severe behavioural problems, disrupted sleeping and eating patterns and sensitivities to certain foods, noises, colours and textures of clothing. Dealing with an autistic child can be extremely distressing for a parent, and they may require professional assistance. 

Most children with autism show signs of the disorder by the time they are 18 months old. In some cases, the child may show normal development before the age of one or two, and then regress or lose learned social and language skills. 


Symptoms of this disease include: 

  • Difficulty or inability to communicate with words, sounds, or hand and body gestures
  • Absent or poor social interaction skills
  • Inability to pretend during play
  • Over-sensitivity in hearing, touch, sight, smell, and taste. For example, in some autistic children, certain sounds, smells, and colours can cause distress 
  • Repetitive body movements or gestures
  • Unusual attachment to objects
  • Spoken language develops slowly or not at all
  • Inability to look directly at objects or people

Older children with autism may show symptoms such as: 

  • Repeating words or memorised passages
  • Inability to make friends or play interactive game
  • Cannot show normal levels of empathy towards others
  • Prefers to play alone 
  • Withdrawn moods and temper tantrums
  • Inability to respond to eye contact or smiles, or may avoid eye contact
  • May treat other people as objects or toys
  • A heightened or low response to pain and touch
  • A short attention span and over-activity
  • Gets stuck on a single task and has very narrow interests
  • Aggression to self and others

In later life, individuals diagnosed with autism may have communication problems such as the inability to begin or maintain a social conversation or verbally express their thoughts and feelings. They may also prefer to communicate with gestures, which could lead to social awkwardness. Some individuals suffering from autism may experience a lack of emotional control.  


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