What are the Autism Spectrum Disorders?
If you suspect or learn that your child has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, you will find yourself wondering what that means.
Learning the vocabulary of autism and related disorders means that as a parent, you are better able to understand your child’s situation. You can also communicate better with the people who are trying to help your child.
The term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a group of closely related mental disorders that have three things in common:
- Difficulty developing appropriate, effective social skills
- Trouble communicating in a way that is consistent with a child’s age
- Behavior that is restricted, repetitive and inflexible.
Each of the disorders in ASD share these characteristic symptoms to a different degree. That is why the word “spectrum” is used, because the range of these symptoms vary widely from person to person, as does the level of their severity. One child diagnosed with autism can behave quite differently from another child also diagnosed as autistic.
For this reason, as an autism psychologist, I remind parents with a child on the autism spectrum to focus on the symptoms more than the diagnosis.
Three Types of Autism Spectrum Disorders
The three most common Autistic Spectrum Disorders are:
- Asperger’s Syndrome
- Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified
These three disorders share the same symptoms listed above, but they differ in their severity and extent. Autism is the most severe of the autism spectrum disorders. Asperger’s Syndrome is a milder form of autism. Pervasive Developmental Disorder is an atypical autism, or an autistic-like condition that doesn’t exactly meet the strict definition of autism.
Signs and Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders
Social skills: Most children with ASD have trouble engaging in everyday social interactions:
- Little or poor eye contact
- Disinterest in developing peer relationships and in sharing interests or achievements with others
- Difficulty understanding other people’s feelings, reactions and nonverbal cues
- Unusual or inappropriate body language, gestures and facial expressions (e.g. using facial expressions that don’t match what he or she is saying)
- Unusual responses when others show anger, distress or affection
- Resistance to touch
Communication Difficulties: Problems with speaking or comprehending speech are typical of children with ASD:
- Language development is delayed
- Speaks in abnormal tones or with an odd rhythm or pitch
- Fails or is slow to develop gestures, such as pointing and showing things to others
- Repeats words or phrases over and over without apparent purpose
- Difficulty communicating needs, intent or desires
- Takes things too literally, failing to see humor, subtlety, and nuance
Repetitive, restricted behavior: Children with ASD often have repetitive motions and uncommon behaviors. Their activities may be restricted, rigid and unusual as are their interests:
- Repetitive body movements (rocking, spinning, swaying, clapping, finger flicking)
- Abnormal posture (walking on tiptoe, odd hand movements)
- Preoccupation with one narrow interest (sports statistics, airplane facts, lining up cards in a certain order)
- Insistence on sameness and avoidance of change (eating the exact same food every day, taking the same route to school)
- Fascination with movement (opening and closing of doors, spinning toys, fans or other revolving objects)
The signs and symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder typically occur early in a child’s life. In fact, the diagnosis of ASD requires that delays or abnormal functioning in social interactions, language or play must occur before children are three years old.
If you are concerned because your child shows signs of ASD, see a specialist, such as an autism psychologist, who will conduct a comprehensive evaluation and provide a professional diagnosis. The evaluation should include parent interviews, observation of your child, cognitive testing, and an assessment of your child’s functioning in real-life situations. Speech, hearing and medical exams may also be helpful.
Whether reaching out to friends, relatives, other parents or specialists, like an autism psychologist, you want the best for your child – and there is help, hope and support available.
Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an autism psychologist in San Francisco with over 25 years of experience. To schedule a free initial consultation, please call 415-922-1122.