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Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) covers a diverse range of characteristics and abilities. People with autism may have difficulty with social interaction, communication, and behavioral issues. Autism affects each person differently. Many autistic people adapt to their unique abilities and challenges and can live a full, independent life. Others require intensive support throughout their life and cannot live on their own.

Types of ASD

Until a few years ago, autism was separated into different disorders. Today, that separation no longer exists; all autism-related diagnoses fall under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder. However, many people still use the old terminology, so it is important to understand what each term means.

  • Asperger’s Syndrome was a diagnosis for high-functioning individuals who had some social delays. These individuals typically displayed intense focus in a specific interest and could excel in a field that aligned with their interest.
  • Pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PPD-NOS) described individuals who were high-functioning, but displayed more intense characteristics of ASD.
  • Autistic disorder described individuals whose lives were heavily impacted by autism characteristics, including speech delays and difficulty functioning without assistance.
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder was the rarest and most severe classification of autism. These children developed normally, but then suddenly lost language, social, and mental skills, usually at 2-4 years of age. Many of these children also developed seizure disorders.
  • A fifth disorder, Rhett’s Syndrome, used to be classified as an autistic disorder. Doctors have since learned that this disorder has a specified genetic cause, so it is no longer classified as ASD.

Avoiding stereotypes

Although these terms are useful for understanding old diagnostic criteria, it is important to avoid stereotyping people with autism. No two people on the spectrum will experience the exact same set of symptoms. This diversity is reflected in the language some autism advocacy groups use to describe people on and off the spectrum.

Neurodiverse is the word used to describe people who have autism. The term neurotypical describes people who do not exhibit autism characteristics. The prefix “neuro-“ pertains to the brain and its connective pathways. While using these terms is not mandatory, they support the view that people who have autism are different, not less. Describing autistic individuals as neurodiverse celebrates the differences that make them unique while acknowledging the challenges they face.

Understanding signs and symptoms of autism

People with autism may exhibit repetitive or unusual behaviors. Autistic children may rock or flap their hands. This self-stimulating or “stimming” behavior can sometimes help them self-soothe when they are upset.

Neurodiverse people may also have restricted interests. A child with autism may with only part of a toy, such as spinning the wheels on a toy truck instead of pushing it along the ground. He or she may communicate only in relation to a favorite subject as well. Essentially, that subject can become the filter they use to process the world.

Communication challenges

About a third of people diagnosed with autism will remain nonverbal throughout their lives. The majority who develop language skills may have difficulty communicating well. Often, interpreting body language, facial expression, and tone is challenging. For example, an autistic individual might translate “hurt,” “tired,” and “annoyed” facial expressions as “mad.” Individuals with autism may speak with an odd pitch or rhythm to their voice. They may also repeat words without understanding their meaning. The medical term for this phenomenon is echolalia.

Autistic individuals may not understand figurative language either, and may take figurative phrases very literally. For example, Temple Grandin, an autism advocate who is on the ASD spectrum, thinks in pictures rather than words. The first time she heard the phrase “animal husbandry,” a term that refers to breeding domestic animals and livestock, she says she pictured a farmer marrying a cow.

Sensory stimulation

Sensory input can be overwhelming for people on the autism spectrum. Sight, sound, touch, and smell can amplify, turning a scratchy clothing tag or trip to the grocery store into a meltdown. Not all sensory input is bad, though. Weighted blankets and compressive clothing can help children self-regulate, and certain textures make ideal fidget toys to help students focus in school. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Successful techniques will vary according to individual likes and dislikes.

Emotional issues

Many autistic people do not show emotion in neurotypical ways. Because of this, individuals on the spectrum are often stereotyped as emotionless or lacking in empathy. However, studies on this subject show the exact opposite. Autistic people feel deeply and strongly, regardless of whether their facial expression and body language reveal their thoughts.

However, many people with ASD struggle to process and express their emotions. Especially in severely autistic or young children on the spectrum, emotional stress may be released in an outburst. In these episodes, the person may hit, bite, kick, pinch, or otherwise harm themselves or someone else. A meltdown can take a toll on both the person with autism and their caregiver. Fortunately, there are specially trained dogs that can detect an autistic meltdown and help their owner regulate.

Risk factors for autism

Although there is no defined cause of autism, there are a number of risk factors that increase the odds of a person being on the spectrum. Genetics can play a role in autism; children with an autistic sibling are more likely to be autistic themselves. Certain seizure medications and cancer-fighting drugs are also linked to higher instances of autism when taken during pregnancy. Other factors include low birth weight, prematurity, and parental age.

Discovering autism strengths and abilities

Autism is not simply a disability. Neurodiverse people have a unique way of looking at life. Their condition can provide them with abilities and strengths that are not readily available to neurotypical people. For example, people with autism may be better at

  • Paying attention to detail
  • Specializing in a particular field or area
  • Retaining expert-level knowledge about their interests
  • Thinking logically and listening without judging
  • Processing visually
  • Ignoring what others think of them
  • Revealing new, innovative “big picture” ideas

Not every person will have these strengths or display them in the same way. Autism strengths are often balanced by challenges as well. For instance, an autistic person who is very honest might have trouble understanding when blunt honesty is appropriate. However, life would not be the same without people who have ASD. Our world would be vastly different without the literary and artistic genius of Mozart, Einstein, Tim Burton, Andy Warhol, and Lewis Carroll, among many others.

Getting an autism diagnosis

Autism does not present the same way in different people. Because of the disorder’s uniqueness, it can take as long as 2-3 years to receive a diagnosis. The diagnostic team may include psychologists, speech and hearing experts, psychiatrists, neurologists, physical therapists, and special education teachers.

Early intervention

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates an early intervention program for children who are 0-3 years old. Early treatment can help young children be more successful in school. An autism diagnosis is not required for your child to receive services. Talk to your pediatrician if you suspect that your child may have autism.

Public school programs

If your child is school age, talk to the Special Education Director of your local school district. Children age four and up can be evaluated through the school. If your child receives an autism diagnosis, he or she is entitled to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) through the school. You may also request a private evaluation from a clinician, but you may be responsible for any associated expense. Ask your insurance company whether autism evaluations are covered by your plan.

Diagnosing autism in adults

If you are an adult who may have autism, your current options are limited. Current diagnostic assessments and criteria are designed for children, not adults. Fortunately, adult assessments are currently in development. You can talk to an Expert to get more information on adult autism diagnosis. Once you have an autism diagnosis, you will be eligible for therapy and other services that can help you cope with the challenges of ASD.

Autism treatments and therapies

Since little is known about the cause of autism, it is difficult to treat the disorder itself. Instead, therapies, medications, and treatment focus on managing symptoms. Many conditions seem to go hand-in-hand with autism. They may include but are not limited to

  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Seizures
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Anxiety and phobias
  • Muscle weakness

Therapies may focus on speech, social skills, managing anxiety, or strengthening fine motor and other muscular skills. Medications can help manage anxieties and ADHD symptoms.

Unconventional treatments may help alleviate symptoms. Some parents have found success with special diets or essential oils. Others use therapy animals, compression clothing, or sensory toys to help their child unwind and relax. There is no one-size-fits-all approach; the key to successful therapy is finding what works for your family.

Finding support

Autism advocacy groups like Autism Speaks and the Autism Society of America are a valuable resource for locating autism services or learning about new treatments. They may also be able to put you in touch with other people whose lives are affected by autism. Easter Seals and Vocational Rehabilitation provides or helps coordinate some autism services. Vocational Rehabilitation, in particular, is focused on training individuals with disabilities to enter the workforce and may help eligible applicants pay for college.

There is an old proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child. Caring for a child with autism can be challenging. It can be tempting to remain isolated when running errands or a trip to the park is too overwhelming for you or your child. Building a strong support network gives you the opportunity to share the joys and difficulties of autism with others. 

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