Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders
Autism is not a single disorder, but a spectrum of closely related disorders with a shared core of symptoms. Every individual on the autism spectrum has problems to some degree with social interaction, empathy, communication, and flexible behavior. But the level of disability and the combination of symptoms varies tremendously from person to person. In fact, two kids with the same diagnosis may look very different when it comes to their behaviors and abilities.
If youre a parent dealing with a child on the autism spectrum, you may hear many different terms including high-functioning autism, atypical autism, autism spectrum disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder. These terms can be confusing, not only because there are so many, but because doctors, therapists, and other parents may use them in dissimilar ways.
But no matter what doctors, teachers, and other specialists call the autism spectrum disorder, its your childs unique needs that are truly important. No diagnostic label can tell you exactly what challenges your child will have. Finding treatment that addresses your childs needs, rather than focusing on what to call the problem, is the most helpful thing you can do. You dont need a diagnosis to start getting help for your childs symptoms.
Whats in a name?
What Are Some Of The Benefits Of Getting A Diagnosis
- Getting a professional diagnosis may help you to receive any appropriate funding, support and help you might need.
- Your family, friends and work colleagues may have a better understanding of you and your needs and it may allow them to support you more effectively.
- You may have a greater sense of self-identify if you understand yourself and the spectrum better.
- You may have a better understanding of your experiences as a child or adolescent.
- You may have increased confidence knowing you are part of a larger group of adults that may be like-minded.
Some adults find that by having a better understanding of the challenges associated with autism, they can use their strengths and develop strategies to support these.
Fast fact: Did you know that people on the spectrum commonly show character strengths such as loyalty, kindness, honesty and a lack of judgement?
The Autism Risk For Families With Certain Traits
Looking at it from another angle, does the presence of a certain level of autistic traits in one or both parents increase the chances of having a child with autism?
Yes, according to a research team that included psychiatrist John N. Constantino, the developer of a questionnaire for measuring autistic traits, the Social Responsiveness Scale. The risk of ASD in a child rose by 52 percent if one of his parents had a high score on the questionnaire, and by 85 percent if both parents had high scores.14
The team found higher scores in both parents of children with autism more often than would be expected by chance alone. That points to the possible role of assortative mating. Thats a scientific way of saying people tend to choose partners who are like themselves, whether they are aloof or sociable. This study did not directly address whether the parents occupations had anything to do with this. Its data happened to be drawn from a huge study of U.S. nurses, a profession popularly believed to attract caring and empathetic people.
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Potential Benefits Of Living With An Autism Diagnosis
Receiving an ASD diagnosis as an adult could mean a greater understanding of yourself and how you relate to the world. And it can help you learn how to better work with your strengths and strengthen areas of your life that are impacted.
Getting diagnosed can help you gain a different perspective on your childhood. It can also help those around you to understand and empathize more with your unique characteristics.
A better understanding of your own situation can help you find new and inventive ways to work with your strengths and qualities. You can also work with your clinician and your loved ones to seek supports that may be right for you.
Common Symptoms Of Autism
Social interaction -or should we say the difficulty with social interaction- is often one of the first observations made by parents of autistic children.
However, difficulty with nonverbal communication is also another one. The autistic child may also have limited interest in playing or other activities normally enjoyed by children. While the severity of these problems varies, depending on the level of autism, they occur with all types of autism, even those who are high functioning.
One method of identifying difficulties with social interaction is to check the nonverbal communication. Often body posture or facial expressions dont match the message delivered by the autistic child or adult. Theres often either too prolonged eye-to-eye contact or none at all.
The child or adult finds it difficult to establish friends of the same age and part of the reason is the lack of interest in other peoples activities, joys or achievements. In fact, many autistic children and adults seem to lack cognitive empathy for others when the person expresses emotions such as sorrow, pain or devastation. The lack of cognitive empathy is genuine since many autistic people often cant understand the depth of the other persons feelings.
Symptoms of difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication may show up very early in life. There may be a delay in their ability to speak. For those with severe autism, as many of forty percent of the victims never learn speech.
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Actions Not Labels Matter Most
Whatever we call their challenges, children with an autism spectrum disorder do not intuitively understand the social world. Severely affected children have little apparent interest in other people. Those with mild impairment may be somewhat motivated socially, but lack skills to initiate or maintain conversation and play with peers. These children require prolonged support to thrive.
Having one term to describe all kinds of autism is a big step toward recognizing each childs individual strengths, and focusing attention on the kind of care that is most needed. Changing the debate about individual labels allows parents and providers to focus on the services needed by each child.
Is There A Test For Autism In Women
Theres no medical test that can diagnose autism. It can be a difficult process that often requires visiting several types of doctors.
If you believe your child could be on the autism spectrum, make an appointment with their doctor. Depending on your childs symptoms, their doctor may refer them to a child psychologist or pediatric neurologist.
If you suspect that you may have undiagnosed autism, start by talking to your primary care doctor. A psychologist can also help you evaluate your symptoms and rule out other potential causes. Learn more about the process of working with a doctor to get an autism diagnosis.
Autism can be very hard to diagnose in adults. You may need to visit a few doctors before you find one who understands your symptoms and concerns.
If possible, try to ask close family members about any potential signs or symptoms you might have displayed as a child. This can help to give your doctor a better idea of your childhood development.
Throughout the process, remember that you are your most important advocate. If you feel your doctor isnt taking your concerns seriously, speak up or get a second opinion. Seeking a second opinion is common, and you shouldnt feel uncomfortable doing so.
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Social Communication And Interaction Skills
Social communication and interaction skills can be challenging for people with ASD.
Examples of social communication and social interaction characteristics related to ASD can include
- Avoids or does not keep eye contact
- Does not respond to name by 9 months of age
- Does not show facial expressions like happy, sad, angry, and surprised by 9 months of age
- Does not play simple interactive games like pat-a-cake by 12 months of age
- Uses few or no gestures by 12 months of age
- Does not share interests with others by 15 months of age
- Does not point to show you something interesting by 18 months of age
- Does not notice when others are hurt or upset by 24 months of age
- Does not notice other children and join them in play by 36 months of age
- Does not pretend to be something else, like a teacher or superhero, during play by 48 months of age
- Does not sing, dance, or act for you by 60 months of age
What Are Symptoms Of Autism
Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder are categorized into two general areas:
- Problems with social interaction and communication
- Inability to speak or understand
- Showing no interest in communicating
- Difficulty with or lack of interaction with family and friends
- Difficulty learning to interact with others
- Little or no interest in developing friendships
- Children may play alone
- Lack of understanding of social conventions or needs of others
- Lack of interest in sharing activities, interests, or achievements
- Difficulty using and interpreting nonverbal behaviors such as eye contact, facial expression, gestures, and body postures
- Babies may resist cuddling, avoid eye contact, or not spread arms in anticipation of being picked up
In patients who have mild autism social communication skills may be improved with support. Without supports in place, deficits in social communication can cause noticeable impairments.
Restricted and repetitive behavior, activities, and interests
In patients who have mild autism inflexibility of behavior can cause significant interference with functioning in one or more areas, such as problems with organization and planning.
Other features of autism spectrum disorder include:
- Exposure to the drug valproate in utero
- Low birth weight
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Signs And Symptoms Of Autism Spectrum Disorders
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. Some people with ASD have a known difference, such as a genetic condition. Other causes are not yet known. Scientists believe there are multiple causes of ASD that act together to change the most common ways people develop. We still have much to learn about these causes and how they impact people with ASD.
There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people. They may behave, communicate, interact, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The abilities of people with ASD can vary significantly. For example, some people with ASD may have advanced conversation skills whereas others may be nonverbal. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives others can work and live with little to no support.
ASD begins before the age of 3 years and can last throughout a persons life, although symptoms may improve over time. Some children show ASD symptoms within the first 12 months of life. In others, symptoms may not show up until 24 months or later. Some children with ASD gain new skills and meet developmental milestones, until around 18 to 24 months of age and then they stop gaining new skills, or they lose the skills they once had.
Being On The Spectrum Can Mean A Wide Variety Of Experiences
Autism is described as a spectrum of disorders for a reason. Signs of autism can present differently.
Some individuals will have significant behavior and communication challenges that make the possibility of an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis more likely.
In other cases, caregivers may notice occasional atypical behaviors but that dont immediately cause them to seek a full behavioral health evaluation.
In the latter scenario, a child may never have their autism diagnosed or addressed therapeutically. Its possible that mildly-expressed forms of ASD behavior go completely unnoticed.
But another possibility is that an undiagnosed child or their caregiver will feel frustrated by a lack of explanation for certain behavioral events. They may struggle with socialization, for instance, or they may lack commitment to extracurricular activities.
Ignoring the possibility of an autism diagnosis, especially if a child seems mostly neurotypical, can make it more difficult for them to adjust and have their needs met. For this reason, teachers and caregivers who observe subtle signs of ASD should speak with a mental health professional.
A childs parents, teachers, and others with a direct role in their life are the best observers when it comes to picking up on a possible autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. Only a licensed mental health professional can come to a full, accurate diagnosis, but you dont have to be a professional to suspect that an ASD diagnosis is possible.
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What Are The Signs Of Autism Spectrum Disorder
Signs of ASD range from mild to severely disabling, and every person is different. The following signs are considered to be red flags that indicate your young child may be at risk for autism. If your child shows any of the following signs, please get in touch with your childs healthcare provider to discuss a referral for an autism evaluation.
The signs include the following:
- Your child doesnt respond to their name being called at all or responds inconsistently.
- Your child doesnt smile widely or make warm, joyful expressions by the age of 6 months.
- Your child doesnt engage in smiling, making sounds and making faces with you or other people by the age of 9 months.
- Your child doesnt babble by 12 months.
- No back-and-forth gestures such as showing, pointing, reaching or waving by 12 months.
- No words by 16 months.
- No meaningful, two-word phrases by 24 months.
- Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age.
Join The Discussion 44 Comments
Twenty-five years ago I was diagnosed with Bipolar 2 Disorder. Im 65 years of age now and beginning to think I was misdiagnosed. I took the Autism Test for Adults and results revealed I have a 50% chance of being Borderline Autistic. For the past twenty five years Ive been taking the antidepressant Prozac for depression and a small amount of Clonazepam for anxiety. The medications have been working well and continue to provide effective treatment.
Reading about high functioning autism has made me realize I fit the diagnosis much better than I do for Bipolar 2 Disorder. Before being medicated, I avoided eye contact. I continue to avoid crowds and noisy situations.
I was diagnosed with Bipolar 2 also!!! It was the violent meltdowns that cinched the deal, alongside inappropriate social behavior, which together were classified as a hypomanic episode. I definitely get very anxious, and have long periods of depression, but now Im second-guessing all of that as responding to circumstances Or maybe it is comorbid I know theres something up with me, but no label seems to perfectly fit.
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Autism Screening And Diagnosis
It can be hard to get a definite diagnosis of autism. Your doctor will focus on behavior and development.
For children, diagnosis usually takes two steps.
- A developmental screening will tell your doctor whether your child is on track with basic skills like learning, speaking, behavior, and moving. Experts suggest that children be screened for these developmental delays during their regular checkups at 9 months, 18 months, and 24 or 30 months of age. Children are routinely checked specifically for autism at their 18-month and 24-month checkups.
- If your child shows signs of a problem on these screenings, theyâll need a more complete evaluation. This might include hearing and vision tests or genetic tests. Your doctor might want to bring in someone who specializes in autism disorders, like a developmental pediatrician or a child psychologist. Some psychologists can also give a test called the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule .
If you werenât diagnosed with autism as a child but notice yourself showing signs or symptoms, talk to your doctor.
What Are The Symptoms Of Autism
The most obvious symptoms tend to involve communication and interaction with others.
Autistic people may have different ways of learning, thinking, and problem-solving. Intellectually, autistic people can fall on a range from severely challenged to gifted.
Everybody is different. Some people will have many symptoms, and some will have only a few. Signs of autism in a 3-year-old or 4-year-old may look different from those who are teens or adults. Some autistic people may be able to mask their symptoms.
General signs of autism may include:
- not responding to their name
- avoiding eye contact or not showing an awareness when others are speaking
- not understanding sharing or taking turns
- not looking at objects shown to them
- not pointing or responding to pointing
- having difficulty understanding facial expressions
In older children and adults, you might also notice:
- having difficulty reading body language, facial expressions, and other social cues
- not getting sarcasm, teasing, or figures of speech
- speaking in monotone
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Getting An Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis
The road to an ASD diagnosis can be difficult and time-consuming. In fact, it is often two to three years after the first symptoms of ASD are noticed before an official diagnosis is made. This is due in large part to concerns about labeling or incorrectly diagnosing the child. However, an ASD diagnosis can also be delayed if the doctor doesnt take a parents concerns seriously or if the family isnt referred to health care professionals who specialize in developmental disorders.
If youre worried that your child has ASD, its important to seek out a clinical diagnosis. But dont wait for that diagnosis to get your child into treatment. Early intervention during the preschool years will improve your childs chances for overcoming their developmental delays. So look into treatment options and try not to worry if youre still waiting on a definitive diagnosis. Putting a potential label on your kids problem is far less important than treating the symptoms.