Autism Spectrum Disorders: An Overview
The ABC's of ASD's
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are a group of developmental disabilities that affect a child’s social interaction, communication skills, behaviors, and interests. ASDs can also be called Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs). Symptoms of ASDs can range from mildly to severely disabling, and depending on the severity, a total of 5 syndromes have been named, including Autism, Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger’s Syndrome, as well as the rare conditions Rhett’s Disorder and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. ASDs affect approximately 1 in 175 children. Researchers are unsure of the exact cause of these disorders; there appear to be some genetic or hereditary factors, but there also may be some prenatal problems or other non-genetic factors involved. Parenting a child with an ASD can be challenging. While there is no cure, there early identification and intensive intervention that starts while a child is young can maximize the amount of improvement that can be made.
ASD's and your child
Diagnosing ASDs. Signs of ASDs are usually evident before a child is 3 years old, and can be evident as early as the first year of life. There is no single test for autism, however if you are concerned by your child’s behavior, you should still take him to his pediatrician and to a developmental specialist. If you child is under 3 years of age, you can contact your local early intervention agency, and if your child is 3 years and older, you can contact your public school system. To find the appropriate person to speak to in your area, visit the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. For more information on early signs of autism visit the CDC’s Learn the Signs. Act Early. Campaign site.
Identifying the symptoms. There is a wide range of behaviors that children with autism exhibit. Most children with autism consistently exhibit several of the following behaviors:
Problems developing social skills
- Poor eye contact
- Limited use of facial expressions
- Does not wave bye-bye
- Does not play interactive games like peek-a-boo
- Does not like to be held
- Preference to play alone
- Absence of pretend plan
Problems with communication, speech, and language
- Delayed speaking
- Difficulty communicating wants and needs
- Responds to sounds better than verbal cues
Preference for repeated behaviors and routines
- Trouble adjusting to change
- Plays with the same toys over and over
- Repetition of actions, words, and phrases
Learn about education options. There is no cure for ASDs. However, if your child is diagnosed early, there are interventions that may maximize her ability to function. Once your child is diagnosed, she will receive help either from an early intervention program or integrated preschool. Typical interventions can include applied behavioral analysis (ABA), language therapy, occupational, and/or physical therapy. Once your child is ready to enter school, your child’s specialists from your local public school will recommend an appropriate setting, depending on your child’s abilities and needs. Some children need to receive intensive services in a specialized classroom with few students, while others can spend part of all of their day in a regular classroom in the public school, often with some special services. Occasionally, severely affected children may be placed in a school that is highly specialized for children with ASDs. If it is decided that your child cannot attend her local public school, she still is entitled to an appropriate education at no additional cost to you (these costs are funded by local communities). If your child does enter public school, she will be eligible for special education services. A team of people, including yourself, will develop an Individualized Education Plan for her. For more information on Special Education, see One Tough Job’s fact sheet on Special Education. Your child may also be eligible for behavioral therapy, depending on the severity of the disability. As a parent, you have a voice in any decisions made regarding your child. If you have any concern about any decisions made about your child, you have the right to an appeal, and you should contact the Massachusetts Department of Education to discuss your options.
Behavioral intervention. In addition to language, occupational, and physical therapies and special academic support provided in school, behavioral interventions can be successful in treating children with ASDs. The most common behavior therapy that is used in working with children with ASDs is Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). Behavior management will help reinforce wanted behaviors and reduce unwanted ones. Behavior therapy will help your child strengthen her social, cognitive, and language skills and ability to function in the classroom and at home. You can also become trained in behavior management so you can interact in a positive way with your child at home. You will learn important skills like how to reinforce good behaviors, how to develop a consistent routine, and how to communicate effectively with your child.
Helping the whole family. Parents of children with ASDs will need to ensure that their children receive all the treatment and assistance they need. The first step is to learn as much as you can about your child’s condition. Fortunately, there is a lot of information and support available, especially online, where parents have formed support groups and online forums where they share information on what has worked for them. Having a child with autism can be difficult for the rest of the family, and you may want to join a support group or work with a therapist who can help the entire family to adjust and can help you to cope with some of the challenges of raising a child with an ASD. Often, siblings of the affected child feel that they do not get enough parental attention, because their parents have to spend so much time helping the disabled sibling. For more information, see the Center for the Study of Autism’s fact sheet on Sibling Needs.
For more information, see KidsHealth’s fact sheet on Understanding Autism or visit the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
This article has been reviewed by Dr. Betsy Busch, MD