Autism Spectrum Disorder
What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group (or spectrum) of complex disorders characterized (in varying degrees) by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. ASD is a pervasive developmental disorder that delays the development of basic skills, such as the ability to socialize, communicate and develop independent living skills.
The exact cause of ASD is not known, but research suggests genetics and environment play important roles. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than girls, however, there is currently a debate regarding the under diagnosis of girls on the spectrum due to their higher rate of rule compliance.
There are no physical medical tests available to diagnose autism. However, if symptoms are present, ASD is usually first diagnosed in children between ages two and six by a complete medical history, physical, and a psychiatric neurological exam. If no physical disorder is present, the child may be referred to a health professional trained to diagnose and treat ASD. The diagnosis is based on the child’s level of development and their speech and behavior. A diagnostic evaluation usually involves a team of several doctors that may include a pediatric neurologist, psychiatrist, psychologist, speech and language pathologist, physical therapist, and an occupational therapist.
Typically diagnosed in childhood, in adults, diagnosing ASD is not easy, and symptoms can overlap with other mental health conditions such as schizophrenia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). There have been advancements in adult specific psychological screening and testing in recent years, such as cognitive testing, which is a mix of verbal and nonverbal testing, measuring verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning, working memory, and process speed. Other tests include auditory memory testing, measuring of organization and planning skills, and fine motor skills.
What Are the Symptoms of ASD?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there are two types of main behaviors: “restricted/repetitive behaviors” and “social communication/interaction behaviors.” All people diagnosed do not show all the behaviors, but many will show several.
Restrictive/repetitive actions may include:
- Repeating certain actions or having unusual behaviors
- Having overly focused interests, such as moving objects or parts of objects
- Having a constant, intense interest in certain areas of interest
Social communication/interaction behaviors may include:
- Getting upset by a slight change in a routine or being in a new or overly stimulating setting
- Making little or inconsistent eye contact
- Tending to look at and listen to people less often
- Rarely sharing enjoyment of objects or activities by pointing or showing things to others
- Responding in an unusual way when others show anger, distress, or affection
- Failing to, or being slow to, respond to someone calling their name or other verbal attempts
- Having difficulties with the back and forth of conversations
- Talking at length about favorite subjects without noticing that others are not interested or without giving others a chance to respond
- Repeating words or phrases that they hear, a behavior called echolalia
- Using words that seem odd, out of place, or have a special meaning known only to those familiar with that person’s way of communicating
- Having facial expressions, movements, and gestures that do not match what is being said
- Having an unusual tone of voice that may sound sing-song or flat and robot-like
- Having trouble understanding another person’s point of view or being unable to predict or understand other people’s actions.