What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
If you are the parent of a child, or an adult, questioning whether or not you have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you may wonder what behaviors classify as autism and how it’s diagnosed. While ASD may look different for each individual, there are some common symptoms. By learning more about ASD and getting an early diagnosis, people with ASD can receive the support needed to live happy and productive lives.
Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. ASD is a “spectrum” disorder, meaning there is a wide range in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. According to the CDC, about 1 in 44 children are identified as having ASD. ASD occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and is about four times more likely to occur in boys than girls.
Autism Spectrum Disorder can present in a variety of ways with different levels of severity. Although symptoms can vary, there are some common signs that can indicate someone may be on the autism spectrum.
Signs and symptoms of autism in toddlers can be both overt and subtle.
Some common signs of autism in toddlers include:
- Delays in speech and language development
- Repetitive behaviors
- Unusual interests or fixations
- Lack of social interaction
- Avoiding eye contact
- Difficulty responding to changes in routine
- Not responding to name
- Inconsistent facial expressions or gestures
- Sensitive to sensory experiences such as sounds or lights
Most parents are aware of the early signs of autism in children, like delays in speech and language development, difficulty making eye contact, and repetitive behaviors.
However, there are also a number of lesser-known symptoms that can be early indicators of autism including:
- Difficulty expressing emotions
- Repeating the same words or phrases (echolalia)
- Challenges with following complex or multi-step directions
- Insistence on routines
- Little interest in creative or pretend play
As teens enter adolescence, signs of autism may become noticeable. This can be a difficult time for both the teen and their parents, as symptoms of autism can be confusing and overwhelming.
Common symptoms of autism in teens include:
- Difficulty making and maintaining friendships
- Repetitive behaviors
- Fixation on specific topics or interests
- Difficulty understanding social cues and body language
- Trouble with understanding the feelings of others
There is no one known cause of ASD, but there are some risk factors that have been identified.
These risk factors include:
- Other Conditions: Individuals with genetic disorders, such as down syndrome or fragile X syndrome, are more likely to have autism.
- Genetic disposition: Autism tends to run in families, so if you have a family member with ASD, you or your child may be more likely to have it as well.
- Environmental factors: There is some evidence to suggest that exposure to certain toxins or chemicals during pregnancy can increase the risk of ASD.
- Premature birth: Babies born before 26 weeks gestation are at higher risk for ASD.
- Parents’ Ages: Parents who are older when they have a baby are also more likely to have a child with autism.
Autism is often first diagnosed during toddler years or early childhood, but it can sometimes be diagnosed in older children and adults. There is no single autism diagnosis test, but instead, ASD is often diagnosed through a comprehensive evaluation that includes:
- A differential diagnosis to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms
- A comprehensive assessment that looks at all areas of development and functioning
- An evaluation by a team of professionals such as pediatricians, licensed psychologists, and occupational therapists with expertise in autism
The process of differential diagnosis for autism spectrum disorder can be time-consuming and costly, but it is important to rule out other conditions before making a diagnosis of ASD. The comprehensive assessment for autism normally includes:
- A review of the child’s development, medical history, and family history
- A physical examination
- Hearing and vision tests
- Autism-specific behavior assessments
There is no known cure for autism, but there are a variety of behavioral, developmental, educational, and medical interventions that can be effective in reducing symptoms and helping individuals with autism thrive.
Some common interventions for individuals with ASD include:
- Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
- Speech and language therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Physical therapy
- Medications to treat associated conditions such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD
- Social skills groups
It is important to work with a team of professionals to develop an individualized treatment plan for autism that meets the unique needs of each individual while also remaining evidence-based.
If you are interested in having yourself, or your child, evaluated for autism, we can help! We provide both in-person and virtual autism evaluations for individuals of all ages. Assuming a diagnosis of autism applies, once the evaluation is completed, you or your child can begin applied behavior analysis (ABA) at one of our ABA therapy centers. Contact us today to get started with Empower Behavioral Health.