What is Autistic Spectrum Disorder?
Autistic Spectrum Disorder (previously Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder) has gained increased recognition over the past several years, and there has been a significant rise in the number of children diagnosed with this disorder.
Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by symptoms such as poor social communication (e.g. poor eye contact, inability to engage in normal back-and-forth conversation), failure to develop peer relationships, rigid adherence to routines and rituals, and abnormally intense fixations and/or preoccupations. There may be delays in spoken language, inability to initiate or sustain conversation with others, and repetitive use of language that may not make sense to others. Children with ASD may also be very sensitive to certain visual stimuli, sounds, tastes, smells, or textures.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 88 children has been identified with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. ASDs are 5 times more common among boys than girls.
What about Asperger’s Disorder?
The diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder was eliminated from the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), and is now incorporated in Autistic Spectrum Disorder. This form of autism is on the mild end of the spectrum, and typically does not involve language delays or delays in cognitive development or adaptive, self-help skills. Children with mild or “high functioning” ASD may perform well in all areas other than social interaction. However, their inability to read social cues makes it very difficult to sustain meaningful social relationships. For example, individuals with mild forms of ASD are often unable to understand body language, sarcasm, and other “subtle innuendos” of the English language. There is usually an inability to put oneself in another’s position, which further hinders their social functioning. These children often set themselves apart with speech patterns that are unlike their peers, often adult-like, robotic, pedantic, or otherwise described as “odd.” Understandably, these individuals have a very difficult time socially and often endure relentless teasing and criticism from peers.
Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder
Although ASD has historically not been diagnosed until the toddler years or later, we are increasingly able to diagnose this disorder earlier. Developing infants are extremely social by nature from very early on, often drawing others into their world by looking into the faces of parents, smiling, etc. When there is an impairment in this instinctive behavior, the observant parent and/or pediatrician may take notice.
Early diagnosis of ASD is extremely beneficial. There is a good deal of research that supports the utility of early intervention; the earlier that diagnosis and treatment occur, the more positive the outcome. If ASD is suspected, a thorough physical exam with a pediatrician is recommended, in order to rule out a medical cause. Next, a comprehensive assessment should be completed, including the administration of measures developed specifically for diagnosing ASD, observation, and detailed feedback from parents and teachers.
The course of treatment for ASD varies greatly depending on the nature and severity of the disorder, and the age of the child. The treatment must be geared toward the child’s individual needs, and may include interventions such as applied behavior analysis (ABA), occupational therapy, speech-language therapy, and social skills training.