Autism Spectrum Disorder

What is autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?

Autism spectrum disorder, most often can be identified in the early years of a child's life. Children with ASD have difficulty in areas of development or use of functional skills, such as language, communication, socialization, and motor behaviors. There are several types of ASD, which were previously classified separately, these disorders are now classified under the same name, ASD:

  • Autism 

  • Asperger's disorder

  • Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified 

  • Childhood disintegrative disorder (also called disintegrative psychosis)

What causes ASD?

The specific causes of ASD are not known. Children with ASD have problems processing information, thus the causes of ASD have something to do with differences in brain function. However, parenting behaviors are not the cause, or even a contributing factor, to the cause or causes of ASD.

Who is affected by ASD?

An average of 1 in 88 children has some form of ASD. ASD is found more frequently in boys.

What are the symptoms of ASD?

The following are the most common symptoms of ASD. However, each child may experience symptoms differently.

The symptoms of autism may include:

  • Does not socially interact well with others, including parents:

    • Shows a lack of interest in, or rejection of, physical contact. Parents describe autistic infants as "unaffectionate." Autistic infants and children are not comforted by physical contact.

    • Avoids making eye contact with others, including parents

    • Fails to develop friends or interact with other children

  • Does not communicate well with others:

    • Is delayed or does not develop language

    • Once language is developed, does not use language to communicate with others

    • Has echolalia (repeats words or phrases repeatedly, like an echo)

  • Demonstrates repetitive behaviors:

    • Has repetitive motor movements (such as rocking and hand or finger flapping)

  • Is preoccupied, usually with lights, moving objects, or parts of objects

  • Does not like noise

  • Has rituals

  • Requires routines

Some children with ASD have:

  • Normal development of speech, self-help skills, thinking skills (cognitive development), and curiosity about their environment

  • Difficulty with social interactions such as making friends, sharing ideas, sharing pleasures or accomplishments, facial expressions (smiles), or eye contact with others

  • Repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior or play such as strange routines or rituals (hand or finger flapping, collecting strange objects such as lint)

  • Capable of originality and creativity focused on isolated areas of interest

The symptoms of ASD often resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.

How is ASD diagnosed?

ASD is usually identified by the age of 3 years. A child psychiatrist or other mental health professional usually makes the diagnosis of ASD following a comprehensive medical and psychiatric evaluation.

It is important to diagnose ASD early and accurately because ASD can put children at risk for developing other mental disorders (for example, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia).

Treatment for ASD

Specific treatment for ASD will be determined by your child's doctor based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disorder

  • Type of disorder

  • Your child's tolerance for specific medications or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disorder

  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment plans are individualized based on each child's symptoms and the level of severity. Multidisciplinary treatment approaches are utilized as needed to address the individual needs of each child.

Treatment may include:

  • Speech therapy

  • Occupational therapy

  • Social skills training (to help children learn to perform activities of daily living, or ADLs, and ways to communicate and relate to others)

  • Behavioral therapy

Specialized behavioral and educational programs are designed to treat developmental disorders. Behavioral techniques help children learn to behave in more acceptable ways. Parents may be taught behavioral techniques to help them provide consistent rewards and set limits at home. While some children with ASD require specialized classrooms which are highly structured and provide attention to a child's specific academic needs, others are able to function in a regular classroom with less specialized attention.

Medication may be helpful in treating some symptoms of ASD in some children. Child and adolescent mental health professionals help families identify and participate in treatment and educational programs based on an individual child's treatment and educational needs.

Prevention of ASD

Preventive measures to reduce the incidence or severity of any type of ASD are not known at this time. However, it is believed that early identification, diagnosis, and treatment can provide the best chance for decreasing the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders.