What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.  People with ASDs handle information in their brain differently than other people.

ASDs are “spectrum disorders.”  That means ASDs affect each person in different ways, and can range from very mild to severe.  People with ASDs share some similar symptoms, such as problems with social interaction.  But there are differences in when the symptoms start, how severe they are, and the exact nature of the symptoms.

Autism can be reliably diagnosed by or before age 3. Parents and expert clinicians can usually detect symptoms of autism during infancy, although a formal diagnosis is generally not made until the child fails to develop functional language by age 2. Boys are three-to-four times more likely to be affected by autism than girls. Autism occurs in all racial, ethnic, and social groups.

Types of ASDs

There are three different types of ASDs:

•        Autistic Disorder (also called “classic” autism)
This is what most people think of when hearing the word “autism.”  People with autistic disorder usually have significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviors and interests. Many people with autistic disorder also have intellectual disability.

•        Asperger Syndrome.  People with Asperger syndrome usually have some milder symptoms of autistic disorder.  They might have social challenges and unusual behaviors and interests.  However, they typically do not have problems with language or intellectual disability.

•        Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS; also called “atypical autism”)
People who meet some of the criteria for autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome, but not all, may be diagnosed with PDD-NOS. People with PDD-NOS usually have fewer and milder symptoms than those with autistic disorder.  The symptoms might cause only social and communication challenges.

Autism has its origins in the first weeks or months of life. It is characterized by marked problems in social interaction (autism), as well as by delayed and deviant communication development (speech is absent in about 50 percent of cases) and various other behaviors which are usually subsumed in the term ‘insistence on sameness.’ Such behaviors include stereotyped motor behaviors (hand flapping, body rocking), insistence on sameness and resistance to change. Both categorical and dimensional approaches to diagnosis have been used, as for instance in the DSM-IV Worldwide Field Trial. Many individuals with autism exhibit mental challenges on the basis of their full-scale (or averaged) IQ score; however, unlike most people with primary mental challenges, those with autism often have marked scatter in their development, so that some aspects of the IQ, particularly nonverbal skills, may be within the normal range. Autism is sometimes observed along with other medical and psychiatric conditions such as Fragile X syndrome.
Yale School of Medicine

Children and adults with autism find it difficult or impossible to relate to other people in a meaningful way and may show restrictive and/or repetitive patterns of behavior or body movements. While great strides are being made, there is no known cause, or a known singular effective treatment for autism.

There are five developmental disorders that fall under the Autism Spectrum Disorder umbrella and are defined by challenges in three areas: social skills, communication, and behaviors and/or interests. Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability.

Autistic Disorder – occurs in males four times more than females and involves moderate to severe impairments in communication, socialization and behavior than other disorders on the spectrum. People with Asperger’s syndrome usually function in the average to above average intelligence range and have no delays in language skills, but often struggle with social skills and restrictive and repetitive behavior.

Rett Syndrome – diagnosed primarily in females who exhibit typical development until approximately five to 30 months when children with Rett syndrome begin to regress, especially in terms of motor skills and loss of abilities in other areas. A key indicator of Rett syndrome is the appearance of repetitive, meaningless movements or gestures.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder – involves a significant regression in skills that have previously been acquired, and deficits in communication, socialization and/or restrictive and repetitive behavior.

Living with Autism

People with autism have challenges in the areas of communication, socialization and restricted/repetitive behaviors. A few examples:

•        Development of language is significantly delayed
•        Some do not develop spoken language
•        Experience difficulty with both expressive and receptive language
•        Difficulty initiating or sustaining conversations
•        Robotic, formal speech
•        Repetitive use of language
•        Difficulty with the pragmatic use of language

•        Difficulty developing peer relationships
•        Difficulty with give and take of social interactions
•        Lack of spontaneous sharing of enjoyment
•        Impairments in use and understanding of body
language to regulate social interaction
•        May not be motivated by social reciprocity
or shared give-and-take

Restricted/Repetitive Behavior
•        Preoccupations atypical in intensity or focus
•        Inflexibility related to routines and rituals
•        Stereotyped movements
•        Preoccupations with parts of objects

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