What Is Autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder most commonly involving problems with communication and social interactions. Children with ASD also often have abnormal behaviours, interests and play
ASD is an umbrella term that covers classic autism, Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS) and Asperger’s syndrome. Up until 2013, these conditions were considered separate, but they are now all grouped under the autism spectrum.
It is important to know that no two children with ASD are exactly the same, although they may have similar problems. ASD can be mild, moderate or severe. The disorder is referred to as a spectrum because there is a wide range of features among people with ASD. Children with mild symptoms are sometimes referred to as ‘high functioning’.
ASD is a lifelong disorder with no cure. However, early intervention (therapy and support starting at an early age) can be very successful in helping children with ASD reaching their full potential.
Signs and symptoms
Children with ASD tend to have difficulties in two main areas:
- social interaction and communication
- abnormal behaviours, activities, interests and play.
Social interaction and communication
Many children with ASD have poor communication skills, or focus their communication towards objects rather than people. Some children with more severe ASD are not able to speak.
There are many children with ASD who have normal language skills, but will still have problems socialising with other people. Their conversations may be one-sided, they may talk excessively, make up new languages (neologism), or repeat certain words and sounds (echolalia).
Most children with ASD have difficulties with non-verbal communication, such reading body language and other non-verbal cues (e.g. understanding or expressing emotions through tone of voice and facial expressions). These children also struggle with more complex language, such as sarcasm, and are more likely to take what people say literally. Eye contact is also often difficult for children with ASD.
A child with ASD may have many unusual ways of socialising. They may only interact with others when they need to, or they might actively talk with others but only about their own special interests.
Abnormal behaviours, activities, interests and play
Children with ASD may display repetitive behaviours, very limited interests or insistence on routine.
Children with ASD often lack creativity and imaginative play. They may prefer using their senses to explore toys, for example smelling, tasting or staring at the toys rather than playing with them. Some children prefer repetitive or obsessive actions, such as lining toys up in a long line or continuously spinning a car wheel.
Higher-functioning children with ASD can become intensely interested in one topic, often to the exclusion of other activities or interests.
In addition, children with ASD may be unusually undersensitive or oversensitive to everyday sounds or textures. There are also body movements that are typical of children with ASD, such as repetitive hand flapping and spinning, as well as head-banging and poor coordination. They may also adopt unusual postures or walk on their toes.
Many children with ASD can also have other difficulties, which include:
- restricted eating patterns
- sleeping problems
- behaviour problems
- emotional difficulties
- learning difficulties
- attention difficulties
- difficulties with planning and organising.
One of the main factors that affects how a child with ASD behaves and functions is their intellectual ability (i.e. IQ). Children with ASD can range from being severely disabled through to highly intelligent. About one child in four with ASD has an IQ in the normal range or above, but three out of four children with ASD will have some intellectual disability. The child’s level of ability is often uneven, with areas of strength and weakness.
When to see a doctor
If you are concerned about aspects of your child’s behaviour and development, see your GP and ask for a referral to a specialist pediatrician, speech pathologist or psychologist. Do not try to make a diagnosis yourself.
Many of the unusual behaviours that occur with ASD are often seen in normal toddlers, which makes the diagnosis quite difficult at times. Many specialists will wait until a child is older than three years of age before assessing for ASD, but you should discuss this with your child’s doctor.
The diagnosis of ASD requires a multi-disciplinary assessment. This means a team – consisting of a pediatrician, psychologist and/or speech pathologist – will assess your child. As features vary so much between children, there is no single or simple test for ASD.
What causes ASD?
Research suggests that ASD is a genetic condition, but the exact gene thought to cause the disorder has not yet been identified.
Research continues, with the aim of finding the cause and discovering more treatment options.
Key points to remember
- A child with ASD usually has difficulties in two main areas: social interaction and communication; and behaviours, interests and activities/play.
- If you are concerned about your child, see your GP and ask for a referral to a specialist psychologist or pediatrician. Do not try to make a diagnosis yourself.
- No two children with ASD show exactly the same signs and symptoms. Because the symptoms can vary so much, there is no single test for ASD.
- Treatment varies for each child and family and usually changes over time.