What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability; signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate, and interact with others. ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. There is no known single cause of autism, but increased awareness and early diagnosis/intervention and access to appropriate services/supports lead to significantly improved outcomes. Some of the behaviors associated with autism include delayed learning of language; difficulty making eye contact or holding a conversation; difficulty with executive functioning, which relates to reasoning and planning; narrow, intense interests; poor motor skills’ and sensory sensitivities. Again, a person on the spectrum might follow many of these behaviors or just a few, or many others besides. The diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder is applied based on analysis of all behaviors and their severity.

The characteristic behaviors of ASD may or may not be apparent in infancy, but usually become obvious during early childhood (24 months to 6 years). ASD affects individuals in every country and region of the world and knows no racial, ethnic, nor economic boundaries.

What Causes Autism?

Autism has no single cause. It was once thought to be a psychological disorder caused by traumatic experiences, leading to emotional and social withdrawal. This is not true. Today, researchers believe that several genes, possibly in combination with environmental factors, may contribute to autism. Some studies of individuals with autism have also shown abnormalities in several regions of the brain, including the cerebellum, amygdala, and hippocampus. While these findings are substantial, they require further study.

Signs and Symptoms of ASD

People with ASD have difficulty with social communication and interaction, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. The list below gives some examples of the types of behaviors that are seen in people diagnosed with ASD. Not all people with ASD will show all behaviors, but most will show several.

Social communication / interaction behaviors may include:

  • Making little or inconsistent eye contact
  • Tending not to look at or listen to people
  • Rarely sharing enjoyment of objects or activities by pointing or showing things to others
  • Failing to, or being slow to, respond to someone calling their name or to other verbal attempts to gain attention
  • Having difficulties with the back and forth of conversation
  • Often talking at length about a favorite subject without noticing that others are not interested or without giving others a chance to respond
  • Having facial expressions, movements, and gestures that do not match what is being said
  • Having an unusual tone of voice that may sound sing-song or flat and robot-like
  • Having trouble understanding another person’s point of view or being unable to predict or understand other people’s actions

Restrictive / repetitive behaviors may include:

  • Repeating certain behaviors or having unusual behaviors. For example, repeating words or phrases, a behavior called echolalia
  • Having a lasting intense interest in certain topics, such as numbers, details, or facts
  • Having overly focused interests, such as with moving objects or parts of objects
  • Getting upset by slight changes in a routine
  • Being more or less sensitive than other people to sensory input, such as light, noise, clothing, or temperature

People with ASD may also experience sleep problems and irritability. Although people with ASD experience many challenges, they may also have many strengths, including:

  • Being able to learn things in detail and remember information for long periods of time
  • Being strong visual and auditory learners
  • Excelling in math, science, music, or art

Causes and Risk Factors

While scientists don’t know the exact causes of ASD, research suggests that genes can act together with influences from the environment to affect development in ways that lead to ASD. Although scientists are still trying to understand why some people develop ASD and others don’t, some risk factors include:

  • Having a sibling with ASD
  • Having older parents
  • Having certain genetic conditions—people with conditions such as Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and Rett syndrome are more likely than others to have ASD
  • Very low birth weight

Diagnosing ASD

Doctors diagnose ASD by looking at a person’s behavior and development. ASD can usually be reliably diagnosed by the age of two. It is important for those with concerns to seek out assessment as soon as possible so that a diagnosis can be made, and treatment can begin.

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References

Next Steps A guide FOR Families New to Autism. (n.d.). Retrieved March 6, 2019, from https://www.autism-society.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/nextsteps09.pdf

NIMH » Autism Spectrum Disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved March 6, 2019, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd/index.shtml

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