Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder defined by a certain set of behaviors that often impact the way a person processes information, interacts with other people, and the lens through which they see the world. People on the autism spectrum may find it challenging to communicate with others, to make eye contact, develop relationships, or to regulate their sensory input. Signs of autism are usually evident by age 3 and last a lifetime. Autism is called a spectrum disorder, because it affects each individual differently and symptoms that range from barely perceptible to pervasive and serious.
Autism is identified through a set of behaviors that include social reciprocity, communicative intent, and restricted and repetitive behaviors. Autism can often be associated with difficulties in motor coordination, adherence to routine, and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. A person on the spectrum often has a very specific area of interest and may not explore things that typically interest their peers. Difficulty with two-sided social interactions and understanding non-verbal communication can further complicate an individual’s ability to successfully navigate social situations and develop long-term relationships.
There is no known cause or cure for autism and the disorder may not result from a single issue, trigger, or developmental explanation. Researchers may not know the exact cause of autism but are investigating a number of theories, including the links among heredity, genetics, environmental issues, and medical problems. Through early diagnosis and intervention the symptoms of autism can improve.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorders have much to contribute to our families and our community. A diagnosis of autism is not a statement of IQ or ability level. Individuals on the spectrum often have intense interests which can lead to being highly skilled or well-versed in a particular area. Attention to detail, honesty, independence, dedication, as well as logical and visual thinking are common traits for those along the spectrum. Being on the autism spectrum can create challenges in some areas of life, but the characteristics associated with autism mean that at times there are many things that individuals may be able to do better than their peers. Utilizing strengths to develop and increase the efficacy of interventions for any weakness can be a powerful tool when developing plans for education, therapy, or habilitation.
With the publishing of the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the diagnostic criteria has changed how Autism Spectrum Disorders are classified. The spectrum previously included separate subtype diagnoses of autism, Asperger’s syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder - not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and childhood disintegrative disorder. Now, all of these subtypes are considered one diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Though the diagnostic community had shifted the diagnosis, many in the autism community still utilize the old subtypes.
One former subtype is Asperger’s syndrome is the term some use to describe an individual for which there is no delay in language or cognitive development, but there are signs of challenges with social skills, social behavior, restricted interests, and patterns of behavior. Though there may be no delay in language acquisition and use, an individual’s speech patterns, tone, and rhythm may be unique.
Pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified (PPD-NOS) is a former subtype of the autism spectrum that describes an individual who exhibits some, but not all, of the characteristics of autism or Asperger’s syndrome. This classification was typically used when there was a severe and pervasive impairment in the development of reciprocal social interaction associated with impairment in either verbal or non-verbal communication. This may also have included the presence of stereotyped behavior, interests, and activities, but the criteria are not met for other disorders either on or off the autism spectrum.
The final former subtype is childhood disintegrative disorder which is also knows as Heller’s syndrome. This is quite a rare condition which presents with a severe loss of social communication after typical development. This syndrome can present itself after age 2, but a child can experience several years of typical development before a severe regression and dramatic loss of skills.
(Sources: the National Autism Association, Kyle’s Treehouse, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.)