Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts a child’s ability to communicate and interact socially. It also impacts the way the child thinks and behaves.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

The term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a complex neurodevelopmental disorder. Its impact varies for each individual, but primarily, it hinders a child’s ability to communicate and interact socially with others, sometimes severely. It also impacts the way the child thinks and behaves. It can cause them to play, behave and think in repetitive ways.

ASD is a lifelong condition. It is usually first diagnosed in early childhood. Autism is three times more common in boys than in girls.

Children with ASD may demonstrate these symptoms in different ways. The main characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder fall into two categories:

  • Difficulty relating to people, things and events: Children with ASD show varying degrees of difficulty in initiating or responding to social interactions. They have difficulty developing and maintaining relationships with others. This can be shown in many ways. They may avoid eye contact and being near other people, or they just may not know how to play and talk with children their age. Often, social situations seem confusing and stressful to children with ASD.
  • Repetitive movements, behaviors or interests: Children with ASD often show repetitive patterns of behavior, such as hand flapping or repeating certain sounds or phrases. They may be overly interested in a topic, making it hard to engage in other activities. They may insist on things staying the same and can become very distressed when their routine is disturbed.

The symptoms and degree of disability can vary widely. Some children and adults with ASD can perform all the normal activities of daily life. Others require substantial support systems throughout their lives.

How Do I Know If My Child May Have Autism Spectrum Disorder?

The onset of Autism Spectrum Disorder can be different in different children. Sometimes signs of autism spectrum disorder can show up as early as infancy. Other times, children may appear to be developing normally through their second or third years, then their development slows and signs of ASD become clearer. There may be a regression in their verbal skills and their ability to relate to others.

The earliest signs of an autism disorder include:

  • No babbling or pointing by age one
  • No single words by age 16 months or two-word phrases by age two
  • No response to hearing their name
  • Loss of acquired language or social skills
  • Poor eye contact
  • No smiling or response to others

Beyond early childhood, these are some of the indications you might find in a child or adolescent struggling with Autism Spectrum Disorder:

Impaired Social Communication:

  • Language deficits, ranging from a complete lack of speech to delayed language development
  • Poor comprehension of speech
  • Echolalia (precise repetition, or echoing, of words and sounds)
  • Using stilted, overly literal language
  • Cannot relate to simple gestures, body language, tone of voice or other non-verbal cues (such as understanding what it means when someone is waving goodbye)

Impaired Social Interaction:

  • Difficulty in engaging, communicating and interacting with others
  • Difficulty (or no interest) in understanding others’ feelings, or talking about their own
  • A lack of pointing, showing or bringing objects to share their interest with others
  • Inappropriate gestures or facial expressions
  • A lack of shared social play and imagination
  • Failing to respond to the sound of their names
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging from no interest in peers to difficulty responding to subtle social cues

Repetitive Behavior Patterns (Behaviors, Interests, Activities):

  • Repetitive movements, like flapping arms or rocking from side to side
  • Preoccupation with parts of objects, like spinning wheels on a toy truck
  • Obsessive interest in a particular topic or activity, like lining up toys or researching washing machine for hours
  • Inflexibly tied to routines or rituals and angered by small changes
  • Rigid thinking patterns
  • Excessive food restrictions
  • Repetitive questioning or other repetitive statements or sounds
  • Overreaction to sensory input, or excessively seeking out certain sounds, sights, textures or smells

Not all children with Autism Spectrum Disorders will show all of these behaviors.

What Causes Autism Spectrum Disorder?

We simply don’t know. Current research suggests that there are genetic factors at work. There is no evidence that ASD is caused by poor parenting or by vaccines.

A breakthrough in the prevention and cure of Autism Spectrum Disorder is still probably years away.

How is ASD Diagnosed?

There is no medical test for Autism Spectrum Disorder. Diagnosis of ASD starts by assessing a child’s behavior and development in comparison to children of the same age.

It takes a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals with experience in ASD and childhood disorders to conduct a diagnostic evaluation. Through interviewing the parents about the child’s development, conducting psychological and language testing, the team can confirm that the problem is ASD-related and not some other physical or mental health disorder.

Children can usually begin to be diagnosed for Autism Spectrum Disorder by the age of two.

How is ASD Treated?

There is no cure for ASD. A combination of behavioral interventions, therapies and sometimes medication can improve symptoms over time. Beginning these interventions early can help increase their benefit.

There is no quick and easy “fix,” but many adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder can hold jobs and live independently, living successfully in their community. Others will require a life-long supportive environment.

When Should A Parent Seek Help?

The earlier the intervention, the better the results. With early and intensive treatment, children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder can increase the opportunity to live more independently as they mature into adults.

If you have, or know of, a child whose behaviors seem consistently odd or whose development is clearly falling behind others his age, contact your family physician or pediatrician about what assessment and intervention steps you can – and should – take.

Sawyer G

Meet Sawyer

At a little over age 2, Sawyer was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He has learned to speak in full sentences, have conversations and look up and respond when someone calls his name. Not so long ago, when asked to stop looking at a book, Sawyer would often scream, cry and sometimes drop to the floor. That seldom happens now.

Read Sawyer's Story

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