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What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that starts early in life and affects how a person interacts with the world. It affects social communication and interaction and can be accompanied by repeating and narrow patterns of behavior or interests.

Not everyone with autism thinks and acts the same way. The word “spectrum” refers to the wide range of symptoms and behaviors a person might have. In some countries, the term “Asperger syndrome” is used to describe a mild type of autism.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder?’

The signs of autism include problems in 2 main areas:

  • Social interaction and social communication – Children with autism have trouble relating to other people. This might include:
    • Trouble reading another person’s facial expressions
    • Avoiding eye contact
    • Not wanting to play or interact with other people
    • Children with autism often take longer than other children to learn to speak. Some children may never learn to speak. They also often do not use other forms of communication, like hand gestures, facial expressions, and different tones of voice.
  • Limited interests and repetitive behaviors – Children with autism tend to show intense interest in certain things. They also often repeat the same behaviors. This might include:
    • Being completely focused on things that spin or shine and ignoring other things
    • Being preoccupied with a specific topic or subject
    • Having rituals they must follow exactly, and getting upset if a routine changes
    • Reciting “scripts” from a movie, TV show, or conversation from the past
    • Repeating certain physical motions, like flapping the hands, rocking, or spinning

In toddlers, parents might notice:

      • delayed speech
      • using only a few gestures (waving, clapping, pointing)
      • not responding when someone calls their name
      • avoiding eye contact
      • not sharing enjoyment or interests with others
      • unusual ways of moving the hands, fingers, or whole body
      • being very focused or attached to unusual objects
      • little to no imitating of others or pretending
      • unusual sensory interests
      • rituals such as repeating things over and over or lining up objects

No two people with ASD have the same signs and symptoms. Many things can play a role, for this reason, autism is described as a “spectrum.”

How Is Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosed?

If your child does have autism, it’s important that they be diagnosed as soon as possible to ensure they get help and support early.

Healthcare providers look for signs and symptoms at every checkup, ask about concerns parents may have, and do a screening test at the 18-month and 2-year visits. If any concerns are found, doctors will suggest a complete evaluation. This usually involves a team of experts. The team may include:

      • medical doctors who treat developmental disorders
      • psychologists
      • occupational therapists and speech therapists

They’ll observe and evaluate the child to understand his or her language/communication, thinking, emotions, development, physical health, social skills, and self-help skills. They’ll also ask the family about their concerns and the child’s birth, growth, development, behavior, and family history to form a diagnosis.

What Causes ASD?

The exact cause of ASD is unknown. It’s likely that many different things in combination lead to changes in the way the brain develops before a baby is born. Other things, such as problems during pregnancy or at birth, might play a role. Many children with ASD also have an intellectual disability. Vaccines do not cause autism.

How Is Autism Spectrum Disorder Treated?

Treatment for autism depends on the age of the child, what their symptoms are, and whether they have any other medical problems. Autism cannot be cured, but therapy can help children communicate and socialize. Depending on a child’s needs, treatment may include behavior therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, medicine, and extra help with learning. Having the right support in school can also help them become more independent. Getting your child support or therapy can help them feel more comfortable interacting with the world. But you can also support them by making it clear that you accept who they are.

As your child gets older, they might also be able to learn to advocate for themselves. This might include explaining to other people that their brain works differently, or requesting certain types of support. If your child cannot advocate for themselves, you can be an advocate for them.

How Can I Help My Child?

If your child is diagnosed with ASD, many resources and support services can help. Your child’s healthcare provider and care team can point you in the right direction.

Additional Resources

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