On the spectrum
Autistic spectrum disorders refer to a group of developmental disorders that are usually diagnosed during early childhood and that range in severity from a mild form called Asperger’s syndrome to a severe form called autistic disorder.
People with autism share these main characteristics:
- Impairments in social interactions
- Impairments in verbal and non-verbal communication
- Restricted or repetitive behaviors and interests
Recent data estimate that 1 in 88 American children and 1 in 125 British children have some form of autism, with about five times as many boys affected as girls.
The causes of autism aren’t fully understood, but genetic, environmental, infectious, and developmental factors have all been suggested as contributors.
There is some evidence to suggest that people with autism require extra antioxidants. They may have alterations in the signaling pathways in the brain, as well as imbalances of some substances found in the blood and nervous system.
Medications like risperidone (Risperdal) and aripiprazole (Abilify) may be used to treat symptoms of irritability (such as aggression, self-injury, and sudden mood changes) associated with autism. These drugs come with some serious side effects, though, including breast enlargement in boys, weight gain, dizziness, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
NAC is an amino acid that works as an antioxidant in the body. It may also favorably alter brain chemistry, making it a good candidate for use in autism. Researchers from Stanford University and the Center for Pediatric Behavioral Health at the Cleveland Clinic carried out a preliminary trial to determine the effects of NAC in 25 children (average age seven years) with autistic disorder.
The children were given either 900 mg one time per day for four weeks, increasing to 900 mg two times per day for four weeks, and finally to 900 mg three times per day for another four weeks, or placebo. A series of tests were carried out at four-week intervals to see how the children responded.
At the end of the 12 weeks, irritability in children who had been given NAC significantly improved. “Managing irritability, which can be manifested by aggression, tantrums, self-injurious behaviors, and anger, with an effective and safer agent can improve overall functioning in individuals with autism and alleviate burdens on the individual and family,” the researchers commented.
Repetitive behaviors, such as lining up toys in the same pattern over and over, also improved with NAC treatment. The results of the study need to be repeated in larger trials before definitive recommendations about using NAC to treat autism can be made.
Know the signs
Some parents of autistic children say that they always knew that something was “wrong,” while others say that their child was developing normally until there was a sudden change.
Keep a chart handy of the developmental milestones-by-age that your child should be reaching. If you notice a delay in any area, such as the ability to make eye contact, babble, talk, or respond to your smiles, or if at any time he or she loses the ability to perform any previously attained skills, contact your pediatrician.
(Biol Psychiatry 2012;71:956–61)