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What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism Spectrum Disorder: The Basics
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), often simply referred to as ‘Autism’, is a term for a range of neurodevelopmental disorders which appear during infancy or early childhood. According to the Center for Disease Control, about 1 in 68 children are affected by ASD, with more and more being diagnosed each year.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Since many refer to all disorders associated with ASD as Autism, people often want to know if there is a difference. The answer is yes, and no. ASD is simply a reclassification of a number of previously separate disorders. Whereas Autistic Disorder, Asperger Syndrome, Disintegrative Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) used to be diagnosed as separate and distinct neurodevelopmental disorders, they are now all included on the autistic spectrum associated with ASD.

What is the autism spectrum?
The term ‘spectrum’ refers to the wide array of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment or disability often found in children with ASD. These symptoms range from mild to severe and include varying degrees of difficulty with things like information processing, social interaction, and communication (both verbal and nonverbal), as well as repetitive behaviors and difficulty expressing emotion.

What are the symptoms of ASD?
Because there is such a wide range of symptoms and behaviors related to Autistic Spectrum Disorders, no two cases are necessarily alike. However, in order for a child to be diagnosed with ASD, symptoms must appear during the early developmental period (typically the first two years) and they must cause clinically significant impairment with regards to social/communicative functioning. Here are a few ASD related behaviors to look for:

  • Makes very little eye contact/does not maintain eye contact
  • Does not respond to smiles or other facial expressions
  • Child’s facial expressions are often inappropriate for the situation
  • Has trouble relating to others/difficulty or inability to make friends
  • Repeats actions and/or behaviors over and over again
  • Has trouble adapting to changes in daily routine
  • Is responsive to some stimuli, but not others
  • Does not look at objects when someone points at them
  • Appears to be fixated on unusual activities and interested in little else

What causes ASD?
The medical field has only recently begun to truly understand the causes of ASD, but the answers are still not 100% clear. Just as no two cases of ASD are quite the same, the causes may also vary significantly from case to case. What we can say for certain is that there is no single, definitive cause of ASD.

Before we had any conclusive evidence, debates used to rage over whether the disorders associated with ASD were caused by genetic or environmental factors. It turns out that both contribute to the development of ASD to varying degrees. Over the last few years, medical researchers have identified a number of rare genetic mutations associated with ASD, and while some of these mutations are sufficient to cause neurodevelopmental disorders on their own, most cases appear to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Some factors that may contribute to the development of ASD include:

  • Advanced parental age at time of conception (both mother and father)
  • Maternal illness during pregnancy
  • Difficulties during birth, most notably oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain

While there is currently no known cure for ASD, research suggests that early intervention can improve a child’s development. Because the symptoms and severity of ASD are so highly variable, there is no single treatment for the disorder. Instead, treatment plans are created on a case by case basis and may include educational therapy, behavior modification, and/or medicine directed at helping the child learn to process information and talk and interact with others.

The very best thing you can do for a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder is intervene right away. If you think your child might have ASD or you’re concerned about your child’s communication skills and/or peculiar social behaviors, contact your doctor and begin crafting an assessment and treatment plan as soon as possible.