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Introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder (a "brain" disease) characterized by the presence of persistent (ongoing) communication and social issues. It is a developmental disorder, which begins in early childhood and continues throughout life. Autism spectrum disorder affects most every aspect of life along the way. Cognitive (thinking and language) and social skills are typically developmentally delayed compared to their peers without the disorder. However, their motor (movement) skills develop in a more typical way.

Specific social interaction, communication and behavioral problems must be present before the diagnosis can be made. Though all people with autism show the same overall pattern of impairments, the severity of these issues will vary from case to case. Some people show mild impairments and others have more severe issues.

From a very early age, children with autism spectrum disorder demonstrate difficulties in interacting with other people...More

Fast Facts: Learn! Fast!

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder (a "brain" disease) characterized by the presence of persistent (ongoing) communication and social issues.
  • From a very early age, children with autism spectrum disorder demonstrate difficulties in interacting with other people. They also have trouble with processing social and non-verbal forms of communication, such as eye contact and facial expression.
  • People on the autism spectrum also tend to demonstrate odd or socially inappropriate behaviors.
  • The communication symptoms of autism spectrum disorder usually become apparent between eighteen and twenty-four months of age. They can become noticeable during the first twelve months if developmental symptoms are severe. The behavioral symptoms usually first appear in early childhood.
  • Once established, autism spectrum disorder symptoms continue into adulthood. The symptoms range in severity (across people) from relatively mild to severe and crippling.
  • Though intervention cannot reverse the course of autism, it can result in symptom improvement and a greater ability for independence.

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What are the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder?

  • Autistic symptoms cluster into two groups: social communication/social interaction and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests, or activities.
  • Communication issues include difficulty in social and emotional interactions with others, trouble using nonverbal communication skills, and difficulty developing, maintaining and understanding relationships with others.
  • People with autism spectrum disorder have a tendency towards isolation, difficulty making eye contact, and an inability to develop appropriate peer relationships.
  • Patterns of behavioral symptoms in autism spectrum disorder typically include stereotyped or repetitive body movements, insistence on a set routine that cannot be changed, highly restrictive interests that are strongly focused on, and either a lot of interest or no interest in sensory aspects of their surrounding environment.
  • Those with Autism Spectrum Disorder often have other mental health conditions or challenges that they face.

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How is Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosed?

  • In the past, there were several pervasive development disorders that could be diagnosed including Autism, Asperger's Disorder and Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD NOS).
  • With the release of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM; currently in its 5th edition), there were extensive changes made to the diagnosis criteria and categories. Rather than multiple disorders, there is now a single condition called Autism Spectrum Disorder.
  • To be diagnosed with this condition, there must be:
    • A. Persistent/ongoing problems in social communication and social interaction across multiple settings as shown by the following: 1) Deficits in Social/Emotional Connections 2) Deficits in nonverbal communication behaviors used for social interaction 3) Deficits in developing, maintaining and understanding relationships.
    • B. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities as shown by at least two of the following: 1) Stereotyped or Repetitive Motor Movements, Use of Objects, or Speech 2) Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized pattern of verbal and nonverbal behavior; 3) Highly restricted, fixed interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus; 4) Hyper- or hypo- reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment.
    • C. Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder must be present in the early developmental period. However, they may not become fully displayed until social demands exceed the person's limited capabilities, or they may be masked by learned strategies later in life.
    • D. These symptoms cause a great deal of stress in the person's life and problems handling school, work, relationships, and other commitments.
    • E. These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disabilities or global developmental delay.

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How is Autism Spectrum Disorder treated?

  • There is no cure for autism spectrum disorder.
  • It is a lifelong condition that can only be treated and managed with appropriate intervention.
  • It is crucial to intervene as early as possible because the condition can interfere with normal language development. Without therapeutic assistance, children with autism spectrum disorder may not learn language properly or at all.
  • A wide variety of interventions have been developed for children with autism or PDD diagnoses. A few of these include:
  • Selected approaches address each child's specific needs as determined by educators and clinicians whose findings are formalized as an individualized treatment plan.
  • Each child's treatment plan outlines that child's strengths and needs and also lists long-term and short-term goals for the child to reach.
  • The treatment plan also outlines specific interventions that are to be used to help the child meet these goals.

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How can families cope with an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis?

  • Raising a child who has been diagnosed with autism or a related pervasive developmental disorder is a daunting and exhausting task.
  • There are many appointments to keep with some families coordinating between 20 and 40 hours of therapy each week.
  • They are visited by therapists, behavior specialists, case managers and support staff.
  • They deal with their children's isolation, anxiety and tantrums, as well as their own often troubling emotional reactions.
  • In short, families need support to help them cope.
  • Respite services help families caring for children with autism to have a break from caregiving, usually for just long enough so that caregivers can catch their breath.
  • Support groups are mutual self-help groups, run either by peers (other parents of autistic children), or by professionals working in the autism or PDD field.
  • Wraparound is a temporary, physician prescribed service that brings therapy directly to needy families and is used to help children with autism work towards independence.

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What is adulthood like for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder?

  • Autism spectrum disorder is a life-long, chronic disorder that can significantly impact affected people's social and cognitive development.  As a result, adult functioning is frequently compromised.
  • Some adults with ASD learn to function well in society. They can earn degrees and maintain gainful employment.
  • Others never develop the communication and self-help skills necessary to live independently.
  • When children with ASD reach the age of fourteen, their caregivers and teachers create a transition planning review in collaboration with the school district. The transition planning review covers issues like education and training as well as career planning
  • Living arrangements and income are some of the major issues facing adults with autism spectrum disorder. While some can manage independently, others must be supervised around the clock to insure their safety.
  • Even if an adult with ASD can maintain a job and can groom himself independently, he may not be able to deal with everyday situations requiring good social skills like meeting new people, asking appropriate questions or maintaining interpersonal relationships.
  • The ideal jobs for adults with autism spectrum disorder are usually quite structured in nature and make a virtue of their strengths and interests. Many high-functioning adults with ASD find gainful employment in computer-related fields, some like the repetition of assembly line work, and others prefer working with animals.
  • Many adults with autism are able to function quite well in group homes that provided assisted living support, while others live with family members throughout their lives.

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