What Is Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that typically appears during the first three years of life, affecting social communication and behavior development.

Every person with ASD has a unique “spectrum” of symptoms, ranging from mild to severe. The diagnosis of ASD now applies to many previously accepted terms such as autistic, autistic tendencies, Asperger Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and PDD-NOS.

Communication challenges are often an area of great concern as so much of our daily interaction with our environment depends on appropriate conversational and social skills. People with ASD often communicate differently and sometimes appear to struggle to maintain social boundaries and standards. This does not mean that persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder are not social, but instead they often navigate social interaction differently.

The range of severity applies to each symptom of ASD. That is, across a variety of domains, including cognitive, social interaction, communication, behavior, sensory, and motor, each person with ASD presents differently.   For example, one child with ASD may rarely use words to communicate, while another may be extremely verbal with advanced vocabulary. Some children may not like to be hugged or touched, while others seek out and enjoy physical touch. People with ASD can process and respond to information in unique ways. In some cases, challenging behaviors may be present. Many children and adults with ASD have indicated that their sensory-nervous systems operate differently. Their senses may be over, or under, active resulting in different reactions to things they see taste, touch and hear.

ASD is found in all ethnicities, races, and countries, and occurs in more boys than girls.

Common Characteristics

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder may demonstrate some of the following behaviors:
  • have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • prefer not to be held or cuddled or might cuddle only when they prefer
  • appear to be unaware when other people talk to them but respond to other sounds
  • absence of showing and pointing at objects of interest (point at an airplane flying over)
  • have trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all
  • fail to look at objects when another person points at them
  • absence of “pretend” play (pretend to “feed” a doll)
  • avoid eye contact and want to be alone
  • repeat or echo words or phrases said to them, or repeat words or phrases in place of normal language (echolalia)
  • have trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions
  • have unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound
  • lose skills they once had (for instance, stop saying words they were using)
  • be very interested in people, but not know how to talk, play, or relate to the
  • repeat actions over and over again
  • show a strong preference for following their own interests
  • have trouble adapting when a routine changes

Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder

There are no medical tests for diagnosing ASD. Accurate diagnosis is based on observation of the individual’s social-communication skills, behavior and developmental levels by professional psychologists, physicians, psychiatrists or neurologists. These professionals may order various tests to rule out or identify other possible causes for the symptoms being exhibited.

Information from parents and other caregivers such as a developmental history is very important in making an accurate assessment. It is important to distinguish ASD from other conditions, as appropriate treatment intervention as early as possible can provide the basis for building an appropriate and effective educational and treatment program.

Early Warning Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) lists these five behaviors that signal further evaluation should be pursued.

  • Child does not babble or coo by 12 months
  • Child does not gesture (point, wave, grasp) by 12 months
  • Child does not say single words by 16 months
  • Child does not say two-word phrases on his or her own by 24 months
  • Child exhibits a loss or does not progress in their language or social skills.

If your child demonstrates any of these five characteristics it does not mean that your child has ASD. Because the characteristics of this disorder vary widely, your child should be evaluated further.

Treatment Options

Although there is no cure for ASD, researchers agree that early behavioral intervention can greatly improve a child’s developmental trajectory. The earlier the treatment is started, the better the opportunity for the child to reach his or her full potential. Services for a child as young as 18 months can be provided and may continue throughout the individual’s life. It is important to match the child’s individual needs with potential treatments or strategies. The basis for selecting a treatment approach should be a thorough assessment of the child’s particular skills, abilities and needs. Based on the major characteristics associated with ASD, areas that are important to look at when creating a plan include social development, communication, behavior and adaptive skills.

Autism Services Across The Lifespan