Autism spectrum (A guide)

Autism spectrum

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that causes deficits in communication and behavior. 

In this blog piece, you will learn about the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), how ASD is diagnosed, and current treatments that are given to people with ASD. 

Prior to 2013, the three most common forms of autism were classified as Autistic Disorder, or classic autism; Asperger’s Syndrome; and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

There three disorders share many of the same symptoms but differ in severity. Now, all of these syndromes are diagnosed as ASD. 

Low-functioning autism is also a part of autism spectrum disorders.

What are common signs and symptoms of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) characterizes ASD with the following symptoms: 

• Difficulty communicating and interacting with others

• Repetitive behaviors and restricted interests

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

Autism spectrum (A guide)

Behavioral symptoms of ASD that involve social interactions include the following: 

• Making little or inconsistent eye contact 

• Tending not to look at or listen to the person who is speaking

• Failing to respond or being slow to respond when someone calls their name or does other verbal attempts to gain attention 

• Difficulties with back and forth conversation

• Talking at length about a specific subject without noticing that others are not interested

• Not giving others a chance to respond when talking about a favorite subject

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

• Having an unusual tone of voice (i.e., either sing-song or flat and robot-like)

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

Behavioral symptoms of ASD that involve repetitive or restrictive behaviors include the following:

• Echolalia, which is repeating certain behaviors such as words or phrases, or having unusual behaviors 

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

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

• Getting upset over slight changes in a routine 

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

Autism spectrum (A guide)

People with ASD may also have certain strengths such as: 

• 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 

What are the causes and risk factors of ASD? 

The exact cause of ASD is unknown, but research suggests that certain genes can interact with influences from the environment to affect development and lead to ASD. 

Some risk factors for ASD include:

• Having a sibling with ASD

• Having older parents

• Having certain genetic conditions such as Down syndrome, Rett syndrome, and fragile X syndrome

• Very low birth weight 

How is ASD diagnosed?

ASD can usually be diagnosed by the age of two. Doctors will look at the person’s behavior and development.

If you are a parent and you suspect your child might have ASD, it is important to seek out assessment by a doctor as soon as possible so that the diagnosis can be made and treatment can begin. 

It is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics that all children be screened for developmental delays at their 9-, 18-, 24-, or 30-month check-ups, and specifically for ASD at their 18- and 24-month check-ups.

Additional screening may be necessary if a child is at high risk for development of ASD or other developmental problems.

The doctor will usually ask parents questions about the child’s behavior and combine those answers with information from ASD screening tools. 

An additional evaluation may be needed by a team of specialists, such as a developmental pediatrician, a child psychologist and/or a child psychiatrist, a neuropsychologist, and a speech-language pathologist.

This evaluation usually assesses cognitive level or thinking skills, language abilities, and age-appropriate skills needed to carry out daily tasks independently, such as eating, dressing, and going to the bathroom.

This evaluation might also be accompanied by blood tests and hearing tests. 

Autism spectrum (A guide)

Can ASD be diagnosed in older children, adolescents, or adults? 

ASD symptoms in older children and adolescents are usually recognized by parents and teachers and then evaluated by the special education team at the school.

The school may refer the child or adolescent to visit a primary health care provider who specializes in ASD.

Usually, parents and teachers notice social difficulties in the child, such as difficulty understanding tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language.

In addition, these children and adolescents may have trouble understanding figures of speech, sarcasm, or humor, and find it difficult to form friendships with peers. 

In adults, it is much more difficult to diagnose ASD.

Some ASD symptoms can overlap with symptoms of other mental health disorders such as anxiety or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Adults can be referred to a neuropsychologist, psychiatrist, or psychologist who has experience diagnosing ASD.

The evaluator will discuss issues such as social interaction, communication, sensory sensitivity, repetitive behaviors, and restricted interests. 

When adults are evaluated for ASD, parents or other family members may be asked questions about the person’s developmental history.

Services and treatments specifically for adults with ASD are currently in the works.  

Autism spectrum (A guide)

What are the current available treatments for ASD? 

It is important that a treatment plan begins as soon as a person is diagnosed with ASD.

This will enable the person to function as optimally as possible in daily life as well as help them learn new skills and reduce difficulties.

With medication, a person with ASD may experience some relief from the following symptoms:

• Irritability

• Aggression

• Repetitive behaviors

• Hyperactivity

• Problems with attention

• Anxiety and depression

People with ASD may also be referred to doctors who specialize in providing behavioral, educational, psychological, or skill-building interventions.

These programs are typically intensive and may involve the entire family.

These programs may help people with ASD learn the life skills required to live independently, reduce challenging behaviors, build upon strengths, or learn social, communication, and language skills.

Autism is known as a spectrum disorder because there is a range of both symptoms and severity that people experience.

ASD occurs in all racial, ethnic, and economic groups.

It is usually a life-long disorder, but there are available treatments and services to help improve a person’s ability to function in everyday life. 

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about Autism Spectrum: 

What are the five different types of autism?

Prior to 2013, the three most common forms of autism were classified as Autistic Disorder, or classic autism; Asperger’s Syndrome; and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

There three disorders share many of the same symptoms but differ in severity. 

2. What is the autism spectrum?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is condition that affects many areas of life including social interaction, communication, interests, and behavior.

Children with ASD have symptoms before they turn 3 years old, but a diagnosis can be made after the age of 3.

3. What are the three main symptoms of autism? 

There are not only three main symptoms of autism, there are many.

These include the following: 

 -Abnormal body posture or facial expressions

 -Abnormal tone of voice

-Poor eye contact or avoidance of eye contact altogether

-Disturbances in behavior

-Deficits in language comprehension

-Delay in speaking 

-Monotonous speech

-Social interactions that are inappropriate for the situation 

What causes autism?

The principal cause of autism that is not genetic has been defined as prenatal viral infection.

In addition, prenatal exposure to rubella or cytomegalovirus activates the mother’s immune system and greatly increases the risk for autism in animal models.

Congenital rubella syndrome is the most convincing environmental cause of autism. 

5. What is the opposite of autism?

Williams Syndrome (WS) is a rare genetic disorder that has been called the ‘opposite of autism’.

People with WS are empathetic, extremely social, friendly, and endearing, but they tend to have low intelligence. 

6. How is autism inherited?

Autism most likely develops through the interaction of many genes and mutations in these genes, or between the environment and these genes.

In family studies, genetic markers have been identified that may contribute to the development of autism.

Most of these genes encode for proteins involved in normal neuronal development and function. 

7. What is high level autism?

High level autism is another way of describing high-functioning autism.

This is a term applied to people who have autism and are cognitively higher functioning than other people with autism.

This typically includes an IQ of 70 or greater. 

8. What is hyperlexia autism? 

Hyperlexia is a syndrome where children learn to read extremely early.

Between 5 and 20 percent of children with autism have been estimated to be hyperlexic.

These children are often fascinated by letters or numbers and are extremely good at decoding language, thus they learn to read early. 

9. What does it mean to be low functioning autism? 

Low-functioning autism (LFA) refers to people with autism who have cognitive impairments.

These symptoms may include impaired social interactions, bizarre behavior, and lack of social or emotional reciprocity. 

10. What is nonverbal autism?

Nonverbal autism is a subset of autism where the person is unable to speak.

Most autistic children eventually begin to speak, but there is a minority of those who will remain unable to speak. 

11. When was autism first diagnosed?

A doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital first used autism in the way that we use it in modern lexicon in 1943.

He reported 11 children with behavioral similarities and labeled them as having early infantile autism.

Want to learn more about autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? Try these recommended readings! 

Autism Spectrum Disorder: The Complete Guide to Understanding Autism

This book by Chantal Sicile-Kira is an award-winning guide that covers all aspects of living with autism.

It discusses the latest research, treatment methods, and Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) criteria.

Sicile-Kira goes into detail on the potential causes of autism spectrum disorders, getting an accurate diagnosis, and treatments that are based on behavioral, psychological, and medical interventions.

Coping strategies for families and special education programs are also discussed, as well as living and working conditions for adults with ASD.

In addition, many strategies about teaching and community interaction are given for educators and other professionals to use with their students or patients with ASD. 

Autism Spectrum Disorders: Foundations, Characteristics, and Effective Strategies

This book gives real-life scenarios with key information and concepts that help demystify autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

It goes into detail on functional academics, life skills, support systems, and transitions for people with ASD. E. Amanda Boutot tells the reader important background information, potential causes, history, and characteristics of ASD.  

In this blog post, you should have learned about the diagnostic criteria and symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and current treatments.  

References

Autism Spectrum Disorder.National Institute of Mental Health. March 2018 

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Autism spectrum (A guide)

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.