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In our everyday lives, we often hear, read or talk about mental health. But what is it that the term actually means? According to the World Health Organization , mental health is not just the absence of mental disorder and is defined as a state of well-being. Being mentally healthy means that you engage in productive activities that help you grow and develop. It means you have fulfilling relationships that make you feel happier, stronger and supported. And most importantly, being mentally healthy means you have the ability to adapt and cope with adversity or stress when it happens.

Although many people the world over are living contented lives in a positive state of mental health, mental disorders are commonly occurring and often seriously impairing a significant proportion of the world’s population.

Autism spectrum disorders are a group of complex brain development disorders, which cover conditions such as autism, childhood disintegrative disorder and Asperger syndrome. These disorders are characterised by difficulties in social interaction and communication, as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour. According to recent reviews, the World Health Organization estimates that 1 child in every 160 has an autism spectrum disorder.

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The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke describes the hallmark feature of ASD as impaired social interaction. Other common signs can include:

  • Failing to respond to his or her name
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Resisting physical contact, such as cuddling
  • Inability to play interactively with others
  • Difficulty interpreting what others are thinking and feeling due to an inability to understand social cues, such as tone of voice or facial expressions
  • Engaging in repetitive movements such as rocking, or in self-abusive behaviour such as head-banging
  • Not speaking or delayed speech
  • Losing previously acquired ability to say words or sentences
  • Speaking with an abnormal tone or rhythm — may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech
  • Focusing intently on one item to the exclusion of others for long periods of time
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Scientific evidence suggests that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the onset of autism spectrum disorders. Researchers have identified a number of genes that are associated with the disorder. Some of these genetic problems seem to be inherited, while others appear to happen spontaneously. Researchers are also currently exploring whether environmental factors such as viral infections, complications during pregnancy and air pollutants play a role in triggering autism.

The question of whether there is a link between childhood vaccines, particularly the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, and autism has caused much debate. Despite extensive research, no reliable study has shown a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. 

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Because ASD varies widely in severity, making a diagnosis may be difficult. Instead, a doctor may use a questionnaire or other screening instrument to gather information about your child’s development and behavior.  If these tests indicate the possibility of an ASD, a more comprehensive evaluation is recommended. This evaluation may require a multidisciplinary team, including a psychologist, neurologist, psychiatrist, speech therapist, and other professionals. The team members will conduct a thorough neurological assessment and in-depth cognitive and language testing to determine whether your child has an ASD.

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While there is no cure for ASDs, intensive early treatment can make a big impact in the lives of many children with the disorder.

  • Educational/behavioural interventions: Therapists use highly structured and intensive skill-oriented training sessions to help children develop social and language skills.
  • Medications: Doctors may also prescribe medications for treatment of specific autism-related symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. 
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