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What is Autism?

 

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is said to be a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.

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OVERVIEW

 

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a guide created by the American Psychiatric Association used to diagnose mental disorders, people with ASD have:

  • Difficulty with communication and interaction with other people

  • Restricted interests and repetitive behaviors

  • Symptoms that hurt the person’s ability to function properly in school, work, and other areas of life

 

Autism is known as a “spectrum” disorder because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. ASD occurs in all ethnic, racial, and economic groups. Although ASD can be a lifelong disorder, treatments and services can improve a person’s symptoms and ability to function. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism. All caregivers should talk to their doctor about ASD screening or evaluation.

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Signs and Symptoms of ASD

People with ASD have difficulty with social communication and interaction, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. The list below gives some examples of the types of behaviors that are seen in people diagnosed with ASD. Not all people with ASD will show all behaviors, but most will show several.

 

Social communication / interaction behaviors may include:

  • Making little or inconsistent eye contact

  • Tending not to look at or listen to people

  • Rarely sharing enjoyment of objects or activities by pointing or showing things to others

  • Failing to, or being slow to, respond to someone calling their name or to other verbal attempts to gain attention

  • Having difficulties with the back and forth of conversation

  • Often talking at length about a favorite subject without noticing that others are not interested or without giving others a chance to respond

  • Having facial expressions, movements, and gestures that do not match what is being said

  • Having an unusual tone of voice that may sound sing-song or flat and robot-like

  • Having trouble understanding another person’s point of view or being unable to predict or understand other people’s actions

 

Restrictive / repetitive behaviors may include:

  • Repeating certain behaviors or having unusual behaviors. For example, repeating words or phrases, a behavior called echolalia

  • Having a lasting intense interest in certain topics, such as numbers, details, or facts

  • Having overly focused interests, such as with moving objects or parts of objects

  • Getting upset by slight changes in a routine

  • Being more or less sensitive than other people to sensory input, such as light, noise, clothing, or temperature

 

People with ASD may also experience sleep problems and irritability. Although people with ASD experience many challenges, they may also have many strengths, including:

  • Being able to learn things in detail and remember information for long periods of time

  • Being strong visual and auditory learners

  • Excelling in math, science, music, or art

Causes and Risk Factors

 

While scientists don’t know the exact causes of ASD, research suggests that genes can act together with influences from the environment to affect development in ways that lead to ASD. Although scientists are still trying to understand why some people develop ASD and others don’t, some risk factors include:

Having a sibling with ASD
Having older parents
Having certain genetic conditions—people with conditions such as Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and Rett syndrome are more likely than others to have ASD
Very low birth weight

Treatments and Therapies
 

Treatment for ASD should begin as soon as possible after diagnosis. Early treatment for ASD is important as proper care can reduce individuals’ difficulties while helping them learn new skills and make the most of their strengths.

The wide range of issues facing people with ASD means that there is no single best treatment for ASD. Working closely with a doctor or health care professional is an important part of finding the right treatment program.

Medication
A doctor may use medication to treat some symptoms that are common with ASD. With medication, a person with ASD may have fewer problems with:

  • Irritability

  • Aggression

  • Repetitive behavior

  • Hyperactivity

  • Attention problems

  • Anxiety and depression

Behavioral, psychological, and educational therapy
People with ASD may be referred to doctors who specialize in providing behavioral, psychological, educational, or skill-building interventions. These programs are typically highly structured and intensive and may involve parents, siblings, and other family members. Programs may help people with ASD:

  • Learn life-skills necessary to live independently

  • Reduce challenging behaviors

  • Increase or build upon strengths

  • Learn social, communication, and language skills

Diagnosing ASD

 

Doctors diagnose ASD by looking at a person’s behavior and development. ASD can usually be reliably diagnosed by the age of two. It is important for those with concerns to seek out assessment as soon as possible so that a diagnosis can be made, and treatment can begin.

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