The result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain, the symptoms and characteristics of ASD can present themselves in a variety of combinations from mild to severe.
Parents may hear different terms used to describe children within this spectrum. The diagnosis of ASD now applies to many previously accepted terms such as autistic, autistic tendencies, Asperger Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and PDD-NOS.
Every person with ASD is an individual who has a unique personality, strengths and needs. 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, some children may rarely use words to communicate, while others 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. ASD is found in all ethnicities, races, and countries, and occurs in more boys than girls.
People with ASD 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.
Individuals 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 them
- 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 sought.
- 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.
Experts agree that early behavioral intervention is important in addressing the symptoms associated with ASD. 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 likely to be effective. The basis for selecting a treatment approach should be a thorough assessment of the child’s particular skills, abilities and needs. Most professionals agree that people with ASD respond well to highly structured special education programs designed to meet the individual’s 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.