Autism, or more correctly autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a complex developmental condition. Typically, people who have ASD face persistent challenges with communication and social interaction, and often perform repetitive behaviors. ASD is considered a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the book of standards for diagnosing a host of conditions published by the American Psychiatric Association, divides the symptoms of ASD into two categories: problems with communication and social interaction, and problems with restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior or activity.
Problems with communication include having difficulty sharing emotions and interests, and maintaining a back-and-forth conversation. Your child may also struggle with nonverbal communication, such as maintaining eye contact or reading other people’s body language. Difficulties developing and maintaining relationships also fall under this category.
Your child may have ASD if they repeat movements, motions, or speech patterns, or rigidly adhere to a specific routine or behavior. Another symptom is an increase or decrease in sensitivity to a particular sensory input from the environment; for example, reacting strongly to a certain sound. Being fixated or preoccupied with an object or task is also a symptom listed in the DSM-5.
While people with ASD face many challenges, some may also have many strengths. Some people with ASD can learn things in detail and remember information for a long time. They may be strong visual and auditory learners, and be highly skilled in math, science, music, or art.
The exact cause of ASD is unknown, but research suggests there is no single cause. Rather, it’s believed that genetic factors combine with environmental influences to affect development in ways that lead to ASD.
There are certain factors that may increase your child’s risk for developing ASD. The suspected risk factors for autism include: having an immediate family member with the condition; having fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, or another genetic disorder; being born to older parents; having a low birth weight; having a metabolic imbalance; and being exposed while in the womb to certain medications, such as valproic acid or thalidomide. Multiple sources have concluded that the disorder isn’t caused by vaccines.
Typically, ASD symptoms become clearly evident during early childhood, between 12 and 24 months of age, but symptoms may appear sooner or later. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism at their 18- and 24-month well-child visits. But if your child is high-risk for ASD, additional screening may be recommended.
The Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) is a common tool used by many pediatric practitioners to screen for ASD. The M-CHAT is a simple survey that is filled out by the parents. The answers to the survey questions can help the provider determine if additional testing is needed.
A combination of tests may be used to diagnose ASD. These tests often include DNA testing for genetic diseases, behavioral evaluations, occupational therapy screening, and the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS).
The ADOS uses planned social situations to trigger target responses and interpersonal interactions, which elicit a wide range of verbal, physical, and social exchanges between the tester and the person being tested. The reactions to the situations are given a score. A high overall ADOS score indicates a high degree of impairment due to ASD.
There is no cure for ASD, but research has shown that early intervention treatment services can improve your child’s development. Early intervention may include physical, occupational, and speech therapy to help your child with walking and talking. Additional therapy, such as play therapy, can help your child learn key social skills such as interacting with others.
Those with ASD may be referred to specialists who provide behavioral, psychological, and educational therapy, or skill-building interventions. These therapies, which are typically highly structured and intensive, are designed to reduce challenging behaviors, build skills necessary to live independently, increase strengths, and teach social, communication, and language skills.
If you suspect that your child has ASD or if you’re concerned about the way your child plays, learns, speaks, or acts, contact your child’s doctor and share your concerns. Have your child tested for ASD so a diagnosis can be made and treatment services can be initiated as soon as possible.
Intervene early and help your child with ASD reach their full potential!