What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder associated with persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. These impairments vary in severity with each individual. Some children may rarely use words to communicate, while others may hold extensive conversations and use rich language. Some children may not like to be hugged or touched, while others seek out and enjoy physical touch. ASD is diagnosed four times more often in males than females.

What causes Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Though Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) research has come a long way in the past decade, the exact causes are not known in most cases. Only about 10-15% of cases have an identified primary genetic cause. (For example, we know that about one third of people with Fragile X syndrome are also diagnosed with ASD.) For the other 85-90% of cases, the precise cause is still unknown. Research suggests, however, that genetics are strongly involved. Sometimes ASD runs in families and there appears to be a significant genetic connection. In other cases, there is no family history or only subtle examples of ASD-like symptoms in a relative. Even in these cases, there is probably a strong genetic component, but the types of genetic influences likely differ. Researchers believe that there are multiple and different risk genes that combine in various ways to lead to an ASD diagnosis in any individual. Many of the risk genes seem to have only a small influence, and they require a specific combination of risk factors to cause ASD. In most cases, though, it is apparent that genes cannot be the whole story — genes are likely combining with other non-genetic (also known as environmental) sources of influence to lead to an ASD diagnosis.

Is there a cure for Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is usually noticed in the first few years of a child’s life and lasts throughout a lifetime. While there is no definitive cure for ASD, there are educational, behavioral, and therapeutic interventions and strategies for families and instructors to teach motor, cognitive, and social skills. These plans and programs are highly individualized, as the needs of each child diagnosed with ASD are different. Treatment plans frequently include a cooperative team of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), speech and language, occupational, and physical therapists. In general, the earlier a child diagnosed with ASD receives services, the better these interventions will work to enhance a child’s development and help to reduce challenging behaviors.

How is Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosed?

It is important to remember that children develop at different rates. However, because Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is diagnosed based on severity, meaning that difficulties vary in severity with each individual, sometimes it may be difficult to diagnose. ASD can only be formally diagnosed by a trained clinician after conducting formal diagnostic tests. The clinician may be a developmental pediatrician, psychiatrist, neuropsychologist, or other trained and experienced professional. Tools created for the purpose of diagnosing ASD rely on observing the individual with a suspected diagnosis of ASD in structured and/or unstructured settings and asking questions of caregivers on the individual’s history and behavior. A clinician may also suggest a neurological evaluation or genetic, metabolic, and electrophysiological testing. There is no definitive medical test for a diagnosis. Instead, a medical diagnosis of ASD will be based on whether the individual meets the criteria set forth in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

What is the prognosis for someone diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Each individual diagnosed with ASD is different, but all have strengths that can be capitalized on for skill building. While some individuals diagnosed with ASD will have a job and even graduate from college, others will need intensive lifetime care. Services for adult individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and their families, while not as widely available as they need to be, are growing in number. They include social coaching, job training, and accommodated living arrangements in regular communities.

How do I know if my child has Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Although Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) presents as a range of severity of symptoms, there are two major categories of signs. The first set relates to deficits in social communication and social interaction. Individuals diagnosed with ASD have difficulty interacting with other people and often are uninterested in or have difficulty with common childhood social interactions (for example, cuddling or playing interactive games). Some individuals diagnosed with ASD use only a few words and have trouble learning more words. Others have incredible vocabularies but have a very literal interpretation of language and great difficulty maintaining conversation. The second set of symptoms includes restrictive, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. Children may insist on certain routines or patterns in everyday life or want to play with toys in atypical ways (for example, spinning the wheels of a toy car rather than “driving” it). Individuals diagnosed with ASD often have a great desire for predictability and consistency in their daily routines or the organization of their possessions. Some individuals diagnosed with ASD may flap their hands or rock back and forth. These diagnostic symptoms must be present in the early developmental period and must cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.

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