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What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. Here, we’ll talk you through the basics.

The Definition of Autism
A childhood-onset developmental disorder, autism is essentially defined by a triad of deficits in social reciprocity, communication, and repetitive behaviors or interests, each of which can occur at different levels of severity.

The Basic Facts About Autism
People with ASDs handle information in their brain differently than other people. And while there are some common symptoms, such as problems with social interaction, the exact nature of the symptoms varies in terms of time of onset, severity, and other more specific conditions.

All varieties of autism reflect developmental interactions in two distinct ways:

First, younger children behave very differently from older children and adults with autism—similar to the ways in which autism is distinct from other disorders. Developmental trends characterize autism within particular age groups.

Second, having autism affects the experiences of a child growing up, and in this way, affects development. Detailed observations of the behavior of children in social environments suggest that they have far less social interaction than other children in unstructured environments or even during unstructured times in a structured environment (e.g., at home when no one is actively working with them).

Types of Autism
The full range of ASDs includes three primary kinds.

  • Autistic Disorder (also called “classic” autism): This is what most people think of when hearing the word “autism.” People with autistic disorder usually have significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviors and interests. Many people with autistic disorder also have intellectual disability.
  • Asperger Syndrome: People with Asperger syndrome usually have some milder symptoms of autistic disorder. They might have social challenges and unusual behaviors and interests. However, they typically do not have problems with language or intellectual disability.
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS; also called “atypical autism”): People who meet some—but not all—of the criteria for autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome may be diagnosed with PDD-NOS. They will usually have fewer and milder symptoms than those with autistic disorders, with symptoms possibly including social and communication challenges.

Recognizing Autism Symptoms
Children with autism will have symptoms from a very young age, beginning before the age of three. Some children with an ASD show hints of future problems within the first few months of life. In others, symptoms might not show up until 24 months or later.

These symptoms will last throughout his or her life, although intensity can improve over time with solid therapy.

A person with an ASD might:

  • Seem to develop normally until 18–24 months, then either stop gaining new skills or lose some they’ve already developed
  • Not respond to their name by 12 months
  • Not point at objects to show interest (point at an airplane flying over) by 14 months
  • Not play “pretend” games (such as pretend to “feed” a doll) by 18 months
  • Avoid eye contact and want to be alone
  • Have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • Have delayed speech and language skills
  • Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
  • Give unrelated answers to questions
  • Get upset by minor changes
  • Have obsessive interests
  • Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles
  • Have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, feel

Understanding the Process of Autism Assessment
ASD diagnosis can be difficult because there is no straightforward medical test to detect it. Instead, doctors look at the child’s behavior and development to determine the diagnosis.

This may feel uncomfortable for some parents who want hard evidence, but studies show that by age two, a diagnosis by an experienced professional can be considered very reliable.

Digging Deeper Into the Facts About Autism
The American Autism Association has put together a library of education resources for those looking to learn more.

  • Questions to ask if you think your child may have autism.
  • Learn how early intervention services can help your autistic child.
  • Areas of strength and challenge for autistic children.
  • Further symptoms specific to language and communication.
  • What causes autism?
  • Additional references on statistics and autism types.

Have a story you’d like to share about understanding your child’s autism assessment? Please get in touch with us to share stories, ask questions, and find out more about how we can make life can be better for you and your child.