Symptoms of Autism Not Listed in Diagnostic Literature

Characteristic symptoms of autism include lack of eye contact, speech and communication issues, and repetitive behaviors. But many people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) also have symptoms that have nothing to do with social interaction. So far, we don't know whether autism causes these symptoms or is just associated with them. Here are eight physical and mental health problems that may accompany autism.

An autistic child receiving ABA.
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Autism and Sensory Problems

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Many people with autism have sensory problems. They may over-respond to noise, light, and touch. Conversely, they may crave intense physical stimulation. Either way, hyper- or hyposensitivity can make everyday activities extremely difficult; it's hard to focus, for example, if you'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.


Autism and Gastrointestinal Problems

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 (GI) 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. Treating GI problems, however, may help it easier for children to be more receptive to school, therapy, and social interaction.​


Autism and Seizures

Nearly 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 be diagnosed through the use of electroencephalograms to measure changes in brainwaves. Anticonvulsant medications can usually control seizures effectively. Some common antiseizure medications include Tegretol (carbamazepine), Lamictal (lamotrigine), Topamax (topiramate), and Depakote (valproic acid). It's important to be sure that the right anticonvulsant is selected, as some can have serious side effects.


Sleep Problems and Autism

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. Lack of sleep can make symptoms of autism much worse. Studies show that melatonin, a hormone-based supplement, can help people with autism fall asleep. It's not clear, though, that it makes much of a difference in helping them stay asleep through the night.


Anxiety, Depression, and Autism

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 (including what was formerly known as Asperger's syndrome). This may be because people with high functioning autism 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.


Learning Differences and Autism

Children with autism learn differently than their neurotypical peers. 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 may grasp mathematical concepts way 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 from child to child.


Mental Illness and Autism

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 be 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, 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 a mental health expert with solid experience treating people on the autism spectrum.


Attention Deficits, Behavior Issues, and Autism

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), aggressive behavior, and difficulty with focus are not included in the diagnostic criteria for autism, but they are common in children with ASD; 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 their behavior and ability to focus. More likely to be helpful are changes in the environment that lessen sensory distractions and external irritants and support focus.

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