What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD or autism, for short) is a type of developmental disability that affects the way patients experience relationships, communicate with others, and behave in certain situations. As the full name suggests, autism is a spectrum, which means that some patients experience more severe symptoms than others.

ASD is a chronic condition that affects patients for their whole lives. Children often show signs by three years of age. Researchers aren’t sure exactly what causes autism.

It’s crucial for parents who believe their children may have autism to seek professional help. Early intervention is essential to making life easier for patients with ASD. Understanding the signs of autism can help parents decide to seek treatment.

Types of Autism

Before mental health professionals realized that autism is a spectrum, they tended to characterize patients with four types of autism: Asperger’s syndrome, autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and childhood disintegrative disorder.

Although these terms are outdated, they can help people who are new to the community understand the many ways that people with autism live. People tend to consider those with Asperger’s syndrome to be on the mild end of the spectrum.

Autistic disorder is one the other end of the spectrum. The symptoms tend to be severe. PDD-NOS includes the same signs as autistic disorder but scales toward the middle of the spectrum.

Some professionals also consider childhood disintegrative disorder as a type of autism. Children with this disorder develop typically and then regress. Children with this disorder tend to have the most severe symptoms and often have seizures as well.

Autism Symptoms Across Different Age Ranges

Children begin to show symptoms of ASD in very early childhood. Although people with ASD develop differently than those without it, they do develop and change. As they grow, their symptoms change. It’s essential for parents and people with autism to know the signs of autism at each life stage.

Signs of Autism in Babies

Infants under one year of age typically do not show any signs of ASD. Many children with autism start showing noticeable signs between 12 and 18 months. However, some children show “red flags” before then, including:

  • Not responding to their names by 12 months
  • Avoiding eye contact and other nonverbal communication
  • Not demonstrating pretend play by 18 months
  • Unusual movements, such as flapping hands and rocking their bodies
  • Not pointing to objects they are interested in at 14 months

While these signs may indicate autism in babies, it’s essential to remember that some babies will show a few of these symptoms and never get diagnosed with autism.

For example, a baby may flap her hands and struggle with eye contact in the first year of life, then develop more typically. Typically, the signs of autism are more apparent by the toddler stage.

Signs of Autism in Toddlers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 80 to 90 percent of parents whose children have ASD notice developmental problems by the age of 24 months. However, the National Institute of Health estimates that most children do not receive the diagnosis until three years of age. Toddlerhood is an essential time in the development and diagnosis of ASD.
The symptoms of autism in toddlers can include differences in social interactions, interests, behaviors, and abilities. The range of symptoms is extensive, but some common signs include:

  • Delayed or nonexistent speech skills
  • Unusual bodily movements, such as flapping hands or rocking their bodies
  • Avoids eye contact and social interaction
  • Obsessing over specific interests
  • Does not use gestures to communicate, such as waving goodbye
  • Unusually attached to specific routines
  • Minor changes cause tantrums
  • Too much or too little fear
  • Outsized reactions to sensory inputs, such as particular smells or textures

The complete list of signs of autism is lengthy, and the severity of each symptom varies among patients.

Autism Symptoms in Adults

Awareness and understanding of autism have only recently gotten mainstream attention. As such, some adults may have lived on the spectrum their whole lives without an explanation for their differences.

People with “high-functioning” autism sometimes go into adulthood without having a name for their differences. Although such patients may know they are unique, it can help to have a diagnosis and a treatment team to help.

An adult may have autism if he or she:

  • Struggles with social cues
  • Finds it difficult to relate to others
  • Uses a flat, monotone voice, even in emotional conversations
  • Only finds it easy to talk about one or two topics
  • Obsess over a few subjects that others find difficult to understand
  • Has trouble regulating emotions, especially in response to unexpected change
  • Sticks to rigid routines
  • Experience hyper- or hypo-sensitivity to sensory inputs
  • Has difficulty understanding figures of speech, sarcasm, and teasing

Types of Autism Treatment

There is no cure for autism. However, treatments can help patients and their families manage their symptoms. The type of treatment that patients need depends on their ages, types of signs they exhibit, and the severity of their symptoms.

What is ABA Therapy?

ABA stands for “Applied Behavioral Analysis.” In this autism treatment, behavioral professionals use consequences and rewards to encourage desired behavior changes. The basic idea may be common around the world. However, behavioral professionals apply these principles in measurable ways that patients understand.

While ABA can help many patients and their families, not every child responds well to ABA. OBH professionals use other therapies as for such patients.

Behavioral Therapy for Autism

ABA is only one type of behavioral intervention for patients with autism. As with some mental and emotional disorders, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can offer relief. Patients start to recognize their repeated behaviors and discover practical ways to cope with symptoms that affect them. CBT works best for people on the milder end of the spectrum.

Developmental and Individual Relationships (DIR) therapy, or Floortime, can help young children as well. In these sessions, parents, children, and therapists all spend time doing an activity that the child enjoys. Through the play, professionals help patients develop new skills.

Therapists can use all sorts of other behavioral tools to help patients and their families, including:

  • Relationship Development Intervention
  • Social Skills Groups
  • Autism Education

Speech Therapy for Autism

Many patients with autism struggle with communication, including speech. Like autism itself, issues with speech fall on a spectrum. Some people with ASD do not speak at all while others speak in monotone voices. The type and intensity of speech therapy depend on where the patient falls on the spectrum.

Verbal Behavioral Therapy (VBT) presents one option based on behavioral therapy. When it is successful, mostly nonverbal children can move from merely identifying things to saying full sentences that convey their needs.

Play Therapy for Autism

Children with autism use play as a way to express their feelings, since communication can be difficult.

Therapists use this type of play to help communicate with patients and encourage healthy behaviors. Types of play therapy include:

  • Floortime (mentioned above)
  • Joint Attention Symbolic Play Engagement and Regulation (JASPER)
  • Integrated Play Groups

Play therapy is often used in conjunction with other treatments. If you believe that you or your child are on the autism spectrum, be sure to see an LifeStance Health professional.