Autism spectrum disorder is a condition that affects brain development, impacting a person’s ability to perceive and socialize with others, which can lead to difficulties in communication and social interaction. The disorder is also characterized by limited and repetitive behavior patterns. The term “spectrum” is used to describe the wide range of symptoms and severity associated with autism spectrum disorder.
Previously, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and an unspecified form of pervasive developmental disorder were considered separate conditions, but are now included under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder. Asperger’s syndrome, which is typically considered a mild form of the disorder, is still used by some people.
Autism spectrum disorder generally presents in early childhood and can lead to difficulties in socializing and functioning in society, including at school and work. Symptoms may appear within the first year of life, while some children may appear to develop normally before experiencing regression and the onset of autism symptoms between 18 and 24 months of age.
While there is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, early and intensive treatment can make a significant difference in the lives of many children.
Children with autism spectrum disorder may exhibit signs of the disorder as early as infancy, such as a lack of response to their name or reduced eye contact. Others may develop normally for a period of time before displaying sudden changes in behavior, such as becoming withdrawn or aggressive or losing previously acquired language skills. Symptoms are generally apparent by age 2, and the severity of the disorder can vary widely, ranging from low to high functioning.
Some children with autism spectrum disorder may experience difficulty learning and exhibit signs of lower-than-normal intelligence, while others may have normal or high intelligence but struggle with communication and social situations. The severity of the disorder is typically based on the level of impairments and how they impact a person’s ability to function.
The following are common signs that may be exhibited by people with autism spectrum disorder.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder may experience challenges in social communication and interaction, as well as exhibit limited and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. Below are some signs that may indicate such challenges:
Social Communication and Interaction:
- Fails to respond to their name or appears to not hear you at times
- Resists cuddling, holding, and playing with others, preferring to play alone
- Has poor eye contact and lacks facial expression
- Has delayed speech or loses the ability to say words or sentences that were previously known
- Struggles to initiate or maintain conversations, often only engaging with others to make requests or label objects
- Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm, using a singsong voice or robotic speech
- Repeats words or phrases verbatim without understanding their meaning
- Struggles to comprehend simple questions or directions
- Doesn’t express emotions or feelings and may appear unaware of others’ emotions
- Doesn’t point at or bring objects to share interest
- Inappropriately approaches social interactions by being passive, aggressive, or disruptive
- Has difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues, such as interpreting facial expressions, body postures, or tone of voice
Patterns of Behavior:
- Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning, or hand flapping
- Engages in activities that may cause self-harm, such as biting or head-banging
- Develops specific routines or rituals and may become distressed by even slight changes
- Has difficulty with coordination, displaying odd movement patterns, clumsiness, or walking on their toes, as well as odd, stiff, or exaggerated body language
- Is fascinated by the details of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car, without understanding the object’s overall purpose or function
- Is unusually sensitive to light, sound, or touch, but may be indifferent to pain or temperature
- Doesn’t engage in make-believe play or imitative play
- Becomes fixated on an object or activity with abnormal intensity or focus
- Has specific food preferences, such as only eating a few foods or refusing foods with a certain texture
As individuals with autism spectrum disorder grow and develop, some become more engaged with others and exhibit fewer disturbances in behavior. Others, however, continue to have difficulty with language or social skills, and the teen years can bring worse behavioral and emotional problems.
When to Consult a Physician
The development of infants occurs at a rate that is unique to each child, and some may not adhere to the specific timelines that are outlined in certain parenting guides. Nonetheless, kids who have autism spectrum disorder usually demonstrate some indications of delayed development before turning 2 years old.
If you have concerns about your child’s development, or you suspect that your child might have autism spectrum disorder, it is recommended that you discuss your worries with a doctor. The indications that are associated with the disorder may also be connected with other developmental conditions.
Signs of autism spectrum disorder frequently manifest early on in a child’s growth, such as when there are obvious delays in language abilities and social interactions. A physician might recommend developmental tests to evaluate if a child has delays in cognitive, language, and social abilities if they:
- Don’t react with a smile or show happiness by 6 months
- Don’t mimic sounds or facial expressions by 9 months
- Don’t babble or coo by 12 months
- Don’t gesture, like pointing or waving, by 14 months
- Don’t utter single words by 16 months
- Don’t play “make-believe” or pretend by 18 months
- Don’t say two-word phrases by 24 months
- Lose language abilities or social skills at any age
No Relationship Between Vaccinations and Autism Spectrum Disorder
One of the most controversial topics surrounding autism spectrum disorder revolves around the possibility of a link between the disorder and childhood vaccinations. Despite extensive research, no trustworthy study has demonstrated a connection between autism spectrum disorder and any vaccine. In reality, the initial study that sparked this debate years ago has been withdrawn because of its weak design and doubtful research methods.
Neglecting childhood vaccinations can endanger your child and others by exposing them to and spreading serious diseases, such as measles, mumps, or whooping cough (pertussis).
The number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder is increasing, but it is unclear whether this is due to improved detection and reporting or a real rise in the number of cases, or both.
Autism spectrum disorder can affect children of any race and nationality, but certain factors increase a child’s risk, which may include:
- Your child’s gender. Boys are roughly four times more likely to develop autism spectrum disorder than girls.
- Family history. Families that have one child with autism spectrum disorder have a greater chance of having another child with the disorder. It is also common for parents or relatives of a child with autism spectrum disorder to have minor difficulties with social or communication abilities themselves or to engage in certain behaviors characteristic of the disorder.
- Other disorders. Children with certain medical conditions have a greater than normal chance of developing autism spectrum disorder or autism-like symptoms. Examples include fragile X syndrome, an inherited disorder that causes intellectual problems; tuberous sclerosis, a condition in which benign tumors grow in the brain; and Rett syndrome, a genetic condition that almost exclusively occurs in girls, which causes a slowing of head growth, intellectual disability, and loss of purposeful hand use.
- Extremely premature babies. Babies born before 26 weeks of gestation may be at greater risk of developing autism spectrum disorder.
- Parents’ ages. There may be a connection between children born to older parents and autism spectrum disorder, but more research is required to establish this link.
Difficulties with communication, social interactions, and behavior can result in:
- Challenges with school and learning effectively
- Employment difficulties
- Inability to live independently
- Social exclusion
- Family stress
- Being bullied or victimized
There is no known way to prevent autism spectrum disorder, but treatment options are available. Early diagnosis and intervention are particularly effective and can enhance behavior, skills, and language development. However, intervention can be beneficial at any age. Although children with autism spectrum disorder symptoms may not typically grow out of it, they may learn to function effectively.