Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

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Autism

What is Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Autism is a mental disorder and lifelong disability, characterised and diagnosed by differences in two main areas; social communication and patterns of behaviour (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Other Names for Autism:

  • Autistic Disorder
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC)
  • Classic Autism
  • Kanner Autism
  • Atypical Autism
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD – NOS)
  • High Functioning Autism (HFA)
  • Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA)

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is now the most accepted, professionally used term.

Why is it Called a Spectrum?

No two individuals with Autism present the same symptoms.

Speech, sensory processing, intellectual abilities and restrictive/repetitive behaviours all impact them in different ways depending on the level of impairment. The spectrum shows all individuals with ASD have strengths and challenges in different areas to each other.

Autism Spectrum

Common Signs of Autism:

  • Odd and unintentionally offensive toward peers
  • Struggles to adapt during imaginative play
  • Gives instructions to others when playing
  • Mostly disinterested in others
  • Lack of or excessive eye contact
  • Repetitive speech (echolalia)
  • Obsession with a particular interest over all else
  • Extreme and quick changes in emotion
  • Forceful or no facial expressions matching communication
  • Monotonic speech, or inappropriate volumes
  • Sensory sensitivities
  • Avoids/dislikes normal physical contact
  • Awkward, unusual or minimal affection to loved ones
  • Plays with toys in unusual ways (lining up etc)
  • Physical, self-stimulation (stimming)
  • Hyperactive at bed-time

Early signs of severe autism:

  • No big smiles, joyful expressions by 6 months of age
  • No back and forth sharing of sounds or facial expressions by 9 months
  • No babbling by 12 months
  • No back and forth gestures by 12 months
  • No words by 16 months
  • No meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitation or repetition) by 24 months
  • Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age

Many children with autism won’t show these signs but will experience challenges as they integrate into social environments.

Social Communication

ASD presents a vast range of communication difficulties for each individual. Social understanding isn’t an instinctual trait, they must learn the intricate mannerisms of communication in concrete terms.

Many are non-verbal, or almost non-verbal, and many others have a huge vocabulary at a young age.

Communication areas of difficulty:

  • Understanding body language and tone of voice
  • They understand words literally, unaware of sarcasm, jokes etc.
  • Eye contact is overwhelming sensory information
  • Empathy requires constant focus and large amounts of mental energy
  • Speech is monotonic or at inappropriate levels
  • Repetitive and focused on particular interests
  • Direct, honest and unintentionally offensive

Behaviour

People with ASD display repetitive behaviours. Playing with toys in unexpected ways is common; lining them up or organising them into groups. Imaginary play is an area of difficulty, they feel most comfortable with order and predictability.

Other physical behaviours, tics and self-stimulation (stimming), are common ways they cope with anxiety or focus their senses. Waving fingers in front of eyes, flapping hands, spinning and staring closely at lights or objects helps release extra energy or creates a controlled point of focus in an over-stimulating environment.

Obsessions

Having an obsessive interest in a particular topic, object, TV show, etc. is expected. They usually prefer their obsession over social interaction, finding safety in its predictability.

Sensory Processing

Creates the biggest hurdles for those with ASD. Challenges include normal, every day lights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures, often developing fears of objects or places linked to the sensory overload; shopping centres, vacuum cleaners, TV shows, headlights, etc.

Unwanted or unexpected physical contact is confronting and overwhelming. Their mind is so focused on surviving in their surroundings that an invasion of personal space becomes the greatest fear. Most often, they prefer their own space and only enjoy affection when they prepare themselves and initiate it. Here is a picture showing the different parts of the brain and how they are differenct and affected for people with Autism.

Parts of the brain affected by Autism

How Common is Autism?

Autism affects 1 person in every 100 (Autism Spectrum Australia, 2013), and it’s increasing. Many think the increase is due largely to myths about autism, but it’s because awareness and support keeps improving. More people are aware of the signs, and autistic individuals are gaining enough support to start their own families and pass on the genes.

Current statistics show autism as 5 times more likely to occur in males than females, but there is a huge debate about the amount of currently undiagnosed females. Autism presents very differently in females due to their ability to mimic peers and disguise behaviours, it’s often misdiagnosed as anxiety, depression and dissociative identity disorder, amongst others.

How is Autism Diagnosed?

Qualified psychologists and speech and occupational therapists conduct a range of tests and observations of the individual in various situations, according to the guidelines in the recent version of the DSM-5.

What Causes Autism?

The cause of autism is genetic. It’s affected by the mutation of various genes before and after birth, with some environmental factors influencing the changes.

Other Conditions and Disorders Associated with Autism:

  • Intellectual disability
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Hyperlexia
  • Social Communication Disorder
  • Speech and language difficulties
  • Visual Impairment
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
  • Pica (tendency to eat non-food objects after 24 months of age)
  • Sleep dysfunction
  • Attention problems (ADHD)
  • Epilepsy
  • Anxiety, Depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Difficulties with fine and gross motor skills
  • Fetal Anti-Convulsant Syndrome (FACS)
  • Down’s Syndrome
  • Fragile X syndrome
  • Tuberous Sclerosis

Myths about Autism

People with ASD experience every emotion, they just have trouble expressing them in expected ways.

Females have autism. It’s more challenging to recognise due to their ability to mimic peers and disguise behaviours.

Not all autistic people have a high IQ, or gift for numbers or music. There are many talented with numbers or computers but many others who struggle with both and prefer language or art. A portion of the ASD community has intellectual disabilities but most others have an average IQ.

There is no cure for autism. There are many proven ways to support them to thrive in the community.

Autism is not caused by vaccinations, any other medical treatment or parental interaction.

How is Autism Treated?

Early intervention is the best approach, creating a positive understanding before the child reaches ages where they develop negative habits. These services are provided by qualified specialists; psychologists and, speech and occupational therapists.

Resources

1. https://www.autismspectrum.org.au/sites/default/files/quick-guide-to-autism-lores.pdf
2. https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism
3. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/info/autism
4. http://www.amaze.org.au/discover/about-autism-spectrum-disorder/what-is-an-autism-spectrum-disorder/
5. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/autism/detail_autism.htm#3082_3

1 COMMENT

  1. I had no idea there were so many levels with this! No wonder people don’t understand what it is or how to know if their child has it. This has actually helped me better understand autism a lot, thank you for the information.

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