Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments in social interaction, communication, and repetitive or restricted interests. These deficits are usually evident before the age of 3 years old when caregivers notice lack of interest in peers, poor eye contact, difficulty with joint attention and a delay in or lack of development of spoken language. Although many signs are evident in young children, some symptoms may go unrecognized, especially in mildly affected children or when it is masked by more debilitating handicaps. Autism is very person-specific and the disability can range from an individual who is non-vocal to someone who is labeled as a “savant.” Signs of ASD begin during early childhood and typically last throughout a person’s life.
What does an impairment in social interaction look like?
Many individuals with autism struggle to develop interpersonal relationships due to their deficits in social skills. The impairment in social interaction can manifest in early childhood as seen in an infant does not enjoy being held or a toddler that prefers to play alone. In later childhood, this impairment in social interaction may appear as a child having difficulty understanding others’ perspectives, such as recognizing when other people do not share the same interests they do. Children and adults commonly have very few close friends due to social impairments and lack of interest in other people.
What does an impairment in communication look like?
While many individuals with autism develop speech, their communication may consist of single-word utterances or simple sentences. Common speech abnormalities include echolalia (immediate or delayed repeating of information), unconventional word use, and unusual tone, pitch, or inflection. Even if more complex vocabulary is acquired, individuals with autism may still have difficulties having conversations with other people. They also may not understand common nonverbal cues such as body language, facial expressions, and eye contact. While a child with autism may have more advanced language skills, they tend to have difficulty using language in social situations and have difficulty with abstract concepts.
What does an impairment in restricted and repetitive behaviors look like?
Most individuals with autism have a restricted range of interests. Additionally, children with autism may engage in repetitive play activities such as spinning the wheels on a toy car rather than pretending to drive it, or dangling a shoelace in front of their eyes for long periods of time. Other repetitive behaviors may include motor movements, such as hand flapping, spinning, or jumping. Individuals with autism tend to create very strict routines and become extremely resistant to minor changes in their routine or to transitions between activities. This can be seen in refusal to eat any new food items, wanting to wear the same outfit everyday, repeating actions over and over again or reacting negatively to anything new or different.
Along with these diagnostic features, people with Autism may have unusual responses to sensory information and can show regression or loss of learned skills. Some early indicators that require additional evaluation include:
- no babbling or pointing by age 1
- no single words by 16 months or two-word phrases by age 2
- no response to name
- loss of language or social skills
- poor eye contact
- excessive lining up of toys or objects
- no smiling or social responsiveness.
Later indicators include:
- impaired ability to make friends with peers
- impaired ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others
- absence or impairment of imaginative and social play
- stereotyped, repetitive, or unusual use of language
- restricted patterns of interest that are abnormal in intensity or focus
- preoccupation with certain objects or subjects
- inflexible adherence to specific routines or rituals.
Causes: Doctors do not know exactly what cause Autism, but much research is being done to explore environmental and genetic factors. Until further research is done, there is no blood test used to diagnose an ASD. All diagnoses are made after a comprehensive developmental assessment is done by a Developmental Pediatrician, Neurologist or Child Psychologist/Psychiatrist.
Treatment: In most cases, Autism is best treated with behavior therapies both in home and in the community. No single treatment is the answer for every child and good treatment plans will include close monitoring, follow-ups and any changes needed along the way.
Need Support? Check out these links for more information:
Autism Spectrum Disorders – Marcus Autism Center. (n.d.). Retrieved January 30, 2015, from http://www.marcus.org/Autism-Resources/Diagnoses-and-Disorders/Autism-Spectrum-Disorders
Facts About ASD. (2014, November 12). Retrieved January 23, 2015, from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html
National Institute of Health. (2011, National Institute of Health). Autism Fact Sheet. Retrieved 2015, from National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/autism/detail_autism.htm