What is Autism?
Autism is a term that refers to developmental disorders that can impair language, communication, and social interaction.
These conditions are classed as autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Signs of autism typically manifest in early childhood, in the 2 to 3 year age range.
Autism can hinder development in various ways depending on the disorder. Some types of autism are severely debilitating, whereas others are milder. (1)
Autistic disorders are measured across a spectrum due to the many different ways they can manifest.
Each autistic individual has a unique set of capabilities. Similarly, the challenges and issues autism causes can differ from person to person.
Some autistic people may have a good command of language. Others (an estimated one third) remain nonverbal, meaning they do not speak. (2)
A person with autism may have one or more learning disabilities. Or, they could be of average or above average intelligence yet find certain tasks difficult. (3)
Symptoms of autism can include some or all of the following: (4)
Autism often causes impaired language development. Young children do not reach typical milestones for speaking, or they lose language ability as they grow older.
When it develops, speech may include several words or phrases that are repeated. However, some individuals may have huge vocabularies, but cannot sustain a conversation.
Body language and facial expressions can also be affected. An autistic person’s tone of voice or movements may not reflect what he or she is saying.
Autistic people can have trouble understanding social cues. This can make social interaction uncomfortable and difficult.
Sarcasm and abstract concepts may not be obvious to a person with autism.
Frustration or distress in certain situations can result in a loss of emotional control. This can cause behavior such as crying or screaming during inappropriate situations.
Loss of control can also manifest as disruptive or aggressive behaviors. These may include physical aggression or self-injuring behavior, such as hair pulling.
A core indicator of autism is repetitive behavior. This usually encompasses highly restricted interests and activities.
An autistic person may repeat the same sounds or wiggle their fingers repeatedly.
Instead of playing with toy trucks, the person may just line them up in a certain way for hours.
Interests also tend to be highly focused. The individual may have extensive knowledge about their preferred subject, such as computers.
These fascinations can also transpire into what could be only described as somewhat unusual, like ceiling fans or toilets for example.
Those with autism usually prefer a set routine. Changes to their environments or daily activities can be extremely stressful for them.
Autism can change how a person senses and experiences things. Certain smells, sounds and other stimuli can be traumatic or even painful.
Some autistic individuals can be over sensitive or under sensitive. For example, physical contact can distress or cause pain in a sensitive person.
Those who are under sensitive may not respond to sounds or touch. The person may not react when their name is called or when they are spoken to.
Autistic disorders are classified according to levels. Each level rates how severely autism affects communication and behavior.
These levels are related to the diagnostic criteria for autism set by the American Psychiatric Association.
These criteria are described in a letter scale of “A” to “E”, detailing key signs of the disorder.
“A” describes different degrees of impairment in social interaction. This includes nonverbal and verbal communication and relationships with others.
“B” details types of repetitive behavior and how these impair social communication. Examples include inflexible routines or ritualized behavior.
For both “A” and “B”, the symptoms can range from mild to severe. The autistic person may be able to function somewhat well or hardly at all.
“C” is the requirement that these symptoms are identified in early childhood. “D” relates to symptoms which impair function at work, in social environments, or in daily activities.
Finally, “E” is the criteria to describe symptoms which are not the result of a known intellectual disability. (5)
The levels of autism are as follows: (6)
An autistic person at this stage requires some support. They may have difficulty interacting socially without help.
Although they have a fair command of language, attempts at conversation may fail. Making new friends might be attempted in odd, unsuccessful ways.
Inflexible behavior can make it hard to plan or change routines. This can interfere with daily functioning.
Autism is characterized by moderate social impairment. Even with support, the person might refuse social interaction or respond unusually to others.
Restricted and repetitive behaviors are clearly noticeable. Changing focus, like switching an activity suddenly, can cause distress.
The individual is likely to communicate in short, simple sentences. Interaction with others is usually confined to his or her field of specialized interests.
The autistic disorder can make it hard to function in multiple contexts. Inflexible behavior at this level is more intense, as is trouble dealing with change.
An autistic person at this rank needs significant support. Both verbal and nonverbal communications are severely impaired.
The person may not speak at all or very little. He or she will rarely approach others to interact socially, only to meet immediate needs.
Changing routine or focus can cause extreme distress due to highly repetitive and inflexible behavior.
This level of autism can cause substantial difficulty functioning in most areas. These range from communication with others to planning.
Autism is typically diagnosed in early childhood. Parents or doctors may notice the child is not meeting developmental milestones, such as talking.
There is no set method to diagnose adults suspected of being autistic. Your doctor may refer you to a child psychiatrist familiar with autism.
You, your parents and other relatives may be asked to describe your childhood. This can include interactions with others, communication, and general development.
This information is then compared to the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic criteria.
The medical professional interviewing you may also observe your behavior and mannerisms. (7)
The treatments for autism aim to reduce undesirable behaviors and improve functioning. They can be applied to both children and adults:
Verbal therapy helps promote spoken communication in people with autism. Essentially, this therapy teaches autistic individuals to use words to get desired results or objects.
The therapist begins with associating saying a word out loud with a reciprocal action. For example, saying “candy” will get the autistic individual a piece of candy.
At the beginning, the patient may only be able to point at the candy. Any attempt at communication is encouraged.
The therapy progresses to learning how to respond to and make requests independently. (8)
Behavioral therapy usually includes two approaches. These consist of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and applied behavior analysis (ABA).
ABA encourages autistic patients to reduce disruptive behaviors. Positive behaviors are rewarded and positively reinforced. (9)
Similarly, CBT works to change how the patient perceives situations over time. The autistic individual learns to understand and manage feelings such as anxiety or anger.(10)
Occupational therapy involves helping a patient with autism overcome personal challenges.
It addresses developing skills in interaction, organization, self-care and other important areas.
The occupational therapist will determine the individual’s strengths and weaknesses. A program is tailored to help the person improve function. This is done through exercises and coping strategies. (11)
What is autism? Autism consists of a range of developmental disorders that affect communication, language, and socialization skills.
What are the signs of autism? Signs of autism can include difficulty with language, social interaction, and communication. A person may exhibit repetitive behaviors or have issues with sensory input. Depending on the disorder, these symptoms can be mild to severe.
How do you develop autism? The exact cause of autism is still not fully understood. However, genetics play a role in a child’s risk of an autism spectrum disorder. (12)
How are you diagnosed for autism? Most diagnostic strategies are tailored to young children reaching developmental milestones. As an adult, you can consult with your doctor and get a referral to a psychiatrist or pediatric (child) neurologist. You will likely be asked questions about your childhood development.
What is the best treatment for autism? The treatment for autism depends on the individual case. Treatments can include: verbal therapy, behavioral therapy, and occupational therapy.
What are the long term complications of autism? Autism can make it difficult for a person to communicate and interact with others. Depending on the severity of the disorder, an autistic person may require a full time caregiver.
Is autism considered a disability? Yes, children ages 3-18 that demonstrate severe developmental impairment in social interaction, language and communication are eligible for disability. For adults, a doctor must provide evidence that autism makes it difficult to function in a work environment. (13)
Is there any cure for autism? There is no cure for autism. However, there are various treatments to help autistic people manage their disorder. (14)
Is autism life threatening? No, autism is not life threatening in itself. However, some autistic individuals can be unaware of dangers (i.e. traffic) and can accidentally hurt themselves. (15)
Every case of autism is different, as is every person with the disorder. However, the age at which autism is diagnosed can affect a person’s long term prognosis.
The earlier the disorder is managed and treated, the better the individual’s chances at improving function.
Support and understanding from family and friends can benefit both the patient and caregivers. (16)