Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurological disorder characterized by challenges in the areas of communication and socialization and the presence of repetitive or restrictive patterns of behavior or interests.  ASD is considered “pervasive” because it affects many aspects of an individual’s life. It is considered a “developmental disorder” because it occurs very early in life (often prior to the age of three) and may be apparent from early infancy or may begin to manifest after a period of apparently typical development. Experts estimate that Autism is diagnosed in 1 out of every 68 children in the United States; 1 in every 42 boys and 1 in 82 girls.  Autism occurs regardless of race, religion, income level or other societal factors.

Autism is a life-long disorder that exists along a continuum of functioning levels – from those who have mild symptoms and can function independently in society – to those with severe delays in all areas of development who require continuous supervision. Regardless of the nature of their delays, many individuals who are diagnosed with ASD can make substantial gains with appropriate treatment.

What are common signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

The first signs of ASD usually appear before the age of three. The earliest signs of typically include:

  • Poor eye contact
  • Lack of pointing
  • Difficulty in the use and understanding of language
  • Unusual play or lack of play

Other common signs include:

  • Poor social skills
  • Over- or under-sensitivity to sound, sight, taste, touch or smell
  • Repetitive movements (hand flapping, body rocking)
  • Difficulty with changes in routine or surroundings
  • Challenging behaviors such as aggression, self-injury or severe withdrawal
  • Echolalia (repeats words instead of responding)
  • Not responding when called by name or appearing to be deaf

How is ASD Diagnosed?

In New York State, ASD can only be diagnosed by a licensed psychologist or physician. A diagnosis cannot be made through medical tests, but rather, is made on the presence or absence of certain observable behaviors. Qualified professionals should perform a comprehensive evaluation to determine the presence of symptoms and the impact that these symptoms have on an individual’s life. There are many empirically-validated diagnostic instruments that a professional may use to make a diagnosis – see Diagnosing ASD fact sheet. Multiple symptoms must be found in all three core areas- socialization, communication and repetitive/restrictive behaviors and must have a substantial impact on an individual’s daily life.

What causes ASD?

No one really knows what causes Autism, but a variety of theories exist. A substantial amount of research is being conducted to determine the biological causes of Autism, but a single cause has not been identified. Some cases of Autism have been found to have a genetic component, although a single gene is not responsible for the disorder. ASD occurs with increased frequency in identical twins. Many children with ASD also have seizure disorders.

What are effective early interventions for Autism?

There is no cure for Autism but with early, intensive intervention individuals can make substantial gains. The most effective approaches require large amounts of time and effort from therapists, teachers and parents. Interventions that have been found to be most effective for Autism are those based on principals of Applied Behavior Analysi (ABA). Effective ABA programs are those that begin early in life, target all areas of development and are delivered intensively (between 25-40 hours per week). The focus of treatment involves building skills in all areas of development in order to build independence and allow a child to learn, play and interact with others. Research indicates that children with a normal IQ, who receive early intensive behavioral treatment and who develop speech before five years of age tend to have the best prognosis.

While there are no medications that can cure Autism spectrum disorders, they can help manage some of the associated symptoms including aggression, anxiety and attention.

Where can I get more information online?

American Academy of Pediatrics – http://www.aap.org

National Institute of Health – http://www.nichd.nih.gov

Autism Society of America – http://www.autism-society.org

Centers for Disease Control – http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html