Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder
Sometimes referred to as ASD or autism, Autism Spectrum Disorder is a spectrum of developmental delays that affect communication, social skills, and behavior. As a spectrum disorder, ASD affects each patient in different ways. Some may experience more severe issues with speech, as an example, while others may have behavioral struggles.
Autism is a chronic condition that individuals deal with their entire lives. Symptoms usually present around the age of three. No known cause has been identified yet, even though there is much conjecture and hearsay about what causes this disorder.
Any parent who suspects their child might have ASD should seek out the help of professionals. Early and professional intervention is the best way to give a child the skills they need to live well and productively with ASD.
The Different Types of Autism
Before the DSM-5, several related disorders had different but somewhat related diagnoses. As of the DSM-5, all of these disorders are now categorized under the larger umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder. These subtypes are:
- Autistic disorder
- Asperger’s syndrome
- Childhood disintegrative disorder
- Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)
All of these disorders are now referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder from the diagnostic perspective. Understanding that several different types of autism were unified onto one spectrum, however, can be very helpful for parents trying to wrap their minds around the wide variety of behaviors in children with ASD.
As an example, what was once called Asperger’s is now referred to as ASD. Those with this form of ASD are what is sometimes referred to as “high-functioning.” Those with this type of ASD tend to require less intervention and can live independent lives.
Autistic disorder defines the opposite end of the spectrum. Patients with this type of ASD typically have more severe symptoms and may require support throughout their lives. PDD-NOS has symptoms similar to those in what was once known as Autistic Disorder, but to a lesser degree.
Childhood disintegrative disorder is yet another subtype in which children develop typically then begin to regress at a certain point. This type of autism can include seizures and can come with very severe symptoms.
Autism Symptoms in Children, Adolescents, and Adults
Since ASD is characterized by developmental delays, those with this disorder can evolve and change over time. Skills that peers develop at a certain age may develop at a later date in children with ASD. The symptoms of ASD can also change from one stage of life to another. Understanding this is particularly important for parents wishing to guide their children through growth and development with ASD.
ASD Symptoms in Infants
In most cases, signs of autism do not appear in the earliest months of life. There are some signs, however, that parents can watch for, including:
- A child at 14 mths. still not pointing at objects
- No response to their own name at 1 yr
- Poor eye contact, few non-verbal communication skills
- Hand flapping, body rocking
- No pretend play by 1.5 years
Some infants who show these signs may not develop ASD. As such, it is important for parents to watch for signs during the years between a year and a half and three.
ASD Symptoms in Toddlers
The vast majority of parents (80 to 90 percent) begin to recognize developmental delays in children with ASD by the age of 2. Formal diagnosis does not happen, however, until at least 3 years of age. The toddler years, as such, are the most crucial time for spotting signs. Symptoms of ASD in toddlers can include:
- Getting overstimulated or triggered by sensory inputs, such as noise or texture
- Delayed speech or impaired speech
- Absence of fear or far too much anxiety
- Hand flapping and body rocking
- Extreme aversion to changes in schedule and reacting with tantrums
- Extreme adherence to routine
- Faulty eye contact and avoidance of social interaction
- Flat affect or lack of nonverbal communication skills such as waving
- Fixation on specific and narrow interests
The Symptoms of ASD in Adults
Given that understanding of ASD has increased only in recent years, many adults have lived with the disorder for decades without realizing it. Adults with undiagnosed ASD may have some awareness that they think and function differently from others, but do not know how to explain it. A diagnosis can help these individuals attain new levels of happiness and productivity in their lives.
The symptoms of ASD in adults can include:
- Having a hard time with sarcasm, jokes, or figurative language
- An inability to read social cues
- Hyper- or hypo-sensitivity to sensory stimuli
- An inability to relate to or empathize with others
- Strict adherence to routines
- Speaks with a flat affect and few dynamics, even when emotional
- Discusses only one or two narrow topics easily
- Has strong emotional reactions to unexpected change
- Fixates on obscure topics and knowledge
Types of Treatment for ASD
At this time, there are no known cures for ASD. There are, however, a number of interventions that can help, including therapy.
Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA, works to make slow and steady changes to an individual’s behaviors through a system of consequence and reward. Consequence and reward can work well with any child, but ABA’s system has been developed with the Autistic individual’s unique approach to cognition in mind.
ABA is not effective with each and every ASD patient. It might not be the right fit for a family, or else a patient might not respond to it. In these scenarios, there are other therapeutic interventions to consider.
Behavioral Therapy for ASD
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can also be effective for some patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder. In CBT, therapists work with the patient and potentially her family to identify triggers and then develop coping mechanisms to use in response to those triggers. CBT works best with those on the milder end of the spectrum.
Alternatively, patients and families may want to consider Developmental and Individual Relationships (DIR) therapy. Sometimes referred to as Floortime, DIR involves engagement between parents, children, and therapists in a preferred play setting for the child. The play environment helps the therapist teach the child new skills and coping mechanisms.
Additional interventions to consider include:
- Social Skills Groups
- Relationship Development Intervention
- Autism Education
Speech Therapy for those on the Spectrum
Speech issues are characteristic of many on the spectrum. Even when verbal and “high-functioning”, those with ASD can have a very static relationship with language. As such, speech therapy can benefit patients on all sections of the spectrum. Those who are verbal can find help with inflection and intonation, while those with limited verbal interaction can begin to build verbal skills. Parents can also consider Verbal Behavioral Therapy (VBT) for children with speech impairments.
Play Therapy for ASD Children
Play can be one of the few ways in which ASD children can effectively communicate their wants and needs. As such, it can be an invaluable therapeutic tool, allowing therapists to teach children on the spectrum about healthy behaviors. Play therapy can take the form of:
- Integrated play groups
- Joint Attention Symbolic Play Engagement and Regulation (JASPER)
Play therapy is typically most effective when done in tandem with other therapies.
If you believe you or your child are showing signs of ASD, get in touch with our offices today. Our trained professionals can help you with diagnosis and development of an effective treatment plan.