Overview Of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in Adults and Children
ASD is a developmental disorder that makes it hard for individuals to communicate and behave in a typical manner.
As a spectrum disorder, ASD varies widely in the type and severity of symptoms someone has. This disorder is a lifelong disorder, but therapy helps improve the quality of life for people living with ASD.
Though people can receive an ASD diagnosis at any age, most parents notice the condition when their child is two or three years old and no longer hits developmental milestones appropriately.
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Types Of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Research Surrounding It
At one time, doctors labeled various types of autism spectrum disorders as separate conditions, but now doctors recognize that they all fall under the same spectrum. Each of these terms refers to a type of ASD.
Autistic disorder is the typical type of autism portrayed in the media, making it the most common type of ASD people think of when they hear the word.
This type of ASD is likely diagnosed before age three and involves difficulties with communication, social interactions, and normal play.
Asperger’s Syndrome refers to high-functioning ASD, and people with this type may receive a diagnosis later in life because these children have excellent language capabilities.
Asperger’s likely manifests in struggles interacting socially with same-age peers. Children with Asperger’s may have very narrow interests and have a difficult time understanding social cues when interacting with people.
Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Unspecified)
Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PPD) is sometimes called atypical autism, and doctors use this term for children who have autistic behaviors but do not fit into other ASD types.
These children may have delays in their social and communication development, but not to the extent that it qualifies as autistic disorder.
Symptoms Of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Most people with autism will develop symptoms within the first three years of life, though parents may not always recognize them early. Symptoms fall into two categories: social communication or interaction behaviors and restrictive or repetitive behaviors.
Social interaction and communication behaviors may include:
- unwillingness to make eye contact
- not pointing to objects or showing them to others
- not responding to their name
- facial expressions that are not socially appropriate, such as smiling when someone is crying
- a tone of voice that is unusual, such as singing when talking
- difficulty understanding other people’s point of view
- inability to predict other people’s actions
- inability to carry on back-and-forth conversation
- talking at length about a favorite subject, not noticing that others are giving cues of disinterest
Restrictive or repetitive behaviors may include:
- repeating words or phrases (echolalia)
- inability to handle changes to the routine
- repetitive interest in specific topics
- heightened sensitivities or reduced sensitivities to sensory input
- need to move or arrange things
- repetitive motions, known as stims, such as hand flapping
Causes And Risk Factors
Doctors have not found a known cause for ASD. Researchers believe that environmental impacts and genetics both play a role in the development of ASD.
Some risk factors have been identified that indicate a child is more likely to receive an ASD diagnosis, but these do not have to be present for a child to have ASD.
Having a sibling with ASD greatly increases a child’s risk of having the disorder, which shows a potential genetic link. Having older parents also does, as does a low birth weight. Children with other genetic disorders, such as fragile X syndrome or Rett syndrome, are also at higher risk.
How Does Diagnosis Work?
When children go to the doctor for their well-child checkups, the doctor asks a series of questions about development to screen for developmental disorders, including ASD. If these screenings show potential problems, the pediatrician may refer the family to a developmental specialist.
The specialist observes the child and asks the parents questions about the child’s development. The specialist will also perform hearing, language, speech, social, behavioral and developmental level tests.
The results of these tests and observations are compared to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to determine if a child has ASD, including what type they have.
Children with autism often suffer from co-occurring conditions and disorders. Some that commonly get diagnosed along with autism include:
- Fragile X syndrome
- Intellectual impairment
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Tuberous sclerosis
- Rett syndrome
Treating Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Though ASD has no known cure, therapy and treatment can help children and adults overcome the challenges it creates. The earlier therapy begins, the more effective it is, which is why early diagnosis is so important.
Some treatment options include:
- Applied behavior analysis (ABA) — This therapy is specific to ASD and seeks to help individuals learn socially appropriate behaviors and communication
- Complementary and alternative medicine — Sometimes supplements and dietary changes can help ASD symptoms.
- Medication — There is no medication for ASD, but underlying problems, like anxiety or seizures, often benefit from medication.
- Therapy — Speech, language, and occupational therapies can help children with ASD learn to live in a neurotypical world.