Autism Spectrum Disorder
Awareness Color: Distinctive "Puzzle" ribbon
Awareness Month: April
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a range of complex neurodevelopmental disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior. Autistic disorder, sometimes called autism or classical ASD, is the most severe form of ASD, while other conditions along the spectrum include a milder form known as Asperger syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (usually referred to as PDD-NOS). Although ASD varies significantly in character and severity, it occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and affects every age group. Experts estimate that 1 out of 88 children age 8 will have an ASD of some sort.
Children with autism generally have problems in three crucial areas of development — social interaction, language and behavior. But because autism symptoms vary greatly, two children with the same diagnosis may act quite differently and have strikingly different skills. In most cases, though, severe autism is marked by a complete inability to communicate or interact with other people.
Some children show signs of autism in early infancy. Other children may develop normally for the first few months or years of life but then suddenly become withdrawn, become aggressive or lose language skills they've already acquired. Though each child with autism is likely to have a unique pattern of behavior, these are some common autism symptoms:
- Fails to respond to his or her name
- Has poor eye contact
- Appears not to hear you at times
- Resists cuddling and holding
- Appears unaware of others' feelings
- Seems to prefer playing alone — retreats into his or her "own world"
- Starts talking later than age 2, and has other developmental delays by 30 months
- Loses previously acquired ability to say words or sentences
- Doesn't make eye contact when making requests
- Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm — may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech
- Can't start a conversation or keep one going
- May repeat words or phrases verbatim, but doesn't understand how to use them
- Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand-flapping
- Develops specific routines or rituals
- Becomes disturbed at the slightest change in routines or rituals
- Moves constantly
- May be fascinated by parts of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car
- May be unusually sensitive to light, sound and touch and yet oblivious to pain
Young children with autism also have a hard time sharing experiences with others. When read to, for example, they're unlikely to point at pictures in the book. This early-developing social skill is crucial to later language and social development.
As they mature, some children with autism become more engaged with others and show less marked disturbances in behavior. Some, usually those with the least severe problems, eventually may lead normal or near-normal lives. Others, however, continue to have difficulty with language or social skills, and the adolescent years can mean a worsening of behavioral problems.
Most children with autism are slow to gain new knowledge or skills, and some have signs of lower than normal intelligence. Other children with autism have normal to high intelligence. These children learn quickly yet have trouble communicating, applying what they know in everyday life and adjusting in social situations. A small number of children with autism are "autistic savants" and have exceptional skills in a specific area, such as art, math or music.
When to see a doctorBabies develop at their own pace, and many don't follow exact timelines found in some parenting books. But children with autism usually show some signs of delayed development by 18 months. If you suspect that your child may have autism, discuss your concerns with your doctor. The earlier treatment begins, the more effective it will be.
Your doctor may recommend further developmental tests if your child:
- Doesn't babble or coo by 12 months
- Doesn't gesture — such as point or wave — by 12 months
- Doesn't say single words by 16 months
- Doesn't say two-word phrases by 24 months
- Loses previously acquired language or social skills at any age
There is no cure for autism, nor is there one single treatment for autism spectrum disorders. But there are ways to help minimize the symptoms of autism and to maximize learning.
- Behavioral therapy and other therapeutic options
- Behavior management therapy helps to reinforce wanted behaviors, and reduce unwanted behaviors. It is often based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).
- Speech-language therapists can help people with autism improve their ability to communicate and interact with others.
- Occupational therapists can help people find ways to adjust tasks to match their needs and abilities.
- Physical therapists design activities and exercise to build motor control and improve posture and balance.
- Educational and/or school-based options
- Public schools are required to provide free, appropriate public education from age 3 through high school or age 21, whichever comes first.
- Typically, a team of people, including the parents, teachers, caregivers, school psychologists, and other child development specialists work together to design an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to help guide the child’s school experiences.
- Medication options
- Currently there are no medications that can cure autism spectrum disorders or all of the symptoms. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any medications specifically for the treatment of autism, but in many cases medication can treat some of the symptoms associated with autism.
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclics, psychoactive/anti-psychotics, stimulants, and anti-anxiety drugs are among the medications that a health care provider might use to treat symptoms of autism spectrum disorders.
- Secretin—a hormone that helps digestion—is not recommended as a treatment for autism.
To learn more, please visit:
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development