What Is Autism? ASA Guide to Diagnosing & Treating Autism
This information provided by the Autism Society of America (ASA).
What is Autism?
Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disability that typically appears during the first two years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum disorder” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. There is no known single cause for autism, but increased awareness and funding can help families today.
How is autism diagnosed?
There are no medical tests for diagnosing autism. An accurate diagnosis must be based on observation of the individual’s communication, behavior and developmental levels. However, because many of the behaviors associated with autism are shared by other disorders, various medical tests may be ordered to rule out or identify other possible causes of the symptoms being exhibited.
Research indicates that early identification is associated with dramatically better outcomes for individuals with autism. The earlier a child is diagnosed, the earlier the child can begin benefiting from one of the many specialized intervention approaches to treatment and education. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism by their family pediatrician twice by the age of 2, at 18 months and again at 24 months.
What are the most common characteristics of autism?
People on the autism spectrum may:
- Not understand what you say
- Appear deaf
- Be unable to speak or speak with difficulty
- Engage in repetitive behaviors
- Act upset for no apparent reason
- Appear insensitive to pain
- Appear anxious or nervous
- Dart away from you unexpectedly
- Engage in self-stimulating behaviors
Also, the The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) lists five signs of autism that parents and pediatricians should look for in children:
- Does not babble or coo by 12 months
- Does not gesture (point, wave, grasp) by 12 months
- Does not say single words by 16 months
- Does not say two-word phrases on his or her own by 24 months
- Has any loss of any language or social skill at any age
What should I do if I suspect my child has autism?
Whether you or your child’s pediatrician is the first to suspect autism, your child will need to be referred to someone who specializes in diagnosing autism spectrum disorders. This may be a developmental pediatrician, a psychiatrist or psychologist, and other professionals that are better able to observe and test your child in specific areas.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that treatment be started when an autism diagnosis is suspected rather than waiting for a formal diagnosis. The advantages of early intervention cannot be overemphasized. Children who receive intensive therapy can make tremendous strides in their overall functioning and go on to lead productive lives.
What treatments are there for autism?
With appropriate services and supports, training, and information, children on the autism spectrum will grow, learn and flourish, even if at a different developmental rate than others. Intervention may help to lessen disruptive behaviors, and education can teach self-help skills that allow for greater independence. But just as there is no one symptom or behavior that identifies individuals with ASD, there is no single treatment that will be effective for all people on the spectrum.
There are a number of options for treating autism and the optimal treatment option depends on the individual in question. Most treatment options can be grouped into the following categories:
- Educational (i.e., Applied Behavioral Analysis or ABA; Floortime)
- Biological (i.e., special diets; medications)
- Speech-Language Therapy -Related services (i.e., occupational or physical therapy)
- Communication (i.e., Picture Exchange Communication System or PECS; American Sign Language)
- Intensive Autism Services (i.e., treatment provided by a team of individuals in the home, classroom, or community)
- Sensory therapies (i.e., sensory integration; auditory integration)
What are the best first steps to take if my child is diagnosed with autism?
One of the most commonly cited pieces of advice for parents of a newly diagnosed child is to find other parents in the area who have been through the process. ASA local chapters are often a good place to meet with other local parents of children with autism in your area; they are often also a good place to become more educated through workshops, learning your rights, and finding out about best practices and new ideas. Visiting a developmental pediatrician can also be helpful in sorting through all the different options and details.
What is the Autism Society of America, and how do they help people with autism?
ASA, the nation’s leading grassroots autism organization, exists to improve the lives of all affected by autism. We do this by increasing public awareness about the day-to-day issues faced by people on the spectrum, advocating for appropriate services for individuals across the lifespan, and providing the latest information regarding treatment, education, research and advocacy.
For more information, visit www.autism-society.org.