What is autism?

When I was asked to write a blog about Autism for National Autism Awareness Month (April), I thought it sounded like a neat idea. As I was trying to figure out what to write, I thought about what people might want to know about Autism and where to get help. So here goes:

The term “autism” actually refers to a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (also known as DSM-5) called autism spectrum disorder (ASD or autism for short).

Important things to know about individuals with autism:

  • Often have difficulties with social, emotional and communication skills (example: difficulty understanding emotions, interpreting facial expressions or having back and forth conversations)
  • Have restricted, repetitive behaviors or speech (example: difficulty with change, insistence on same routine, repeating words or movements)
  • Have different ways of learning, thinking and reacting to things
  • May have difficulty understanding other people’s feelings or even their own feelings
  • May or may not have intellectual impairment
  • Can seem to be in their own world
  • Tend to have sensory abnormalities (example: sensitive to loud noises, not wanting to be held, low sensitivity to pain); people with ASD can be over OR under sensitive to sight, sound, smell, touch, taste

Other interesting things about autism that could be helpful:

  • No one cause has been discovered; it seems to be multifactorial, such as genetic and/or environmental
  • Several types of therapy can be helpful, including Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), social skills training, occupational therapy (OT), and speech therapy
  • It is important to have a multidisciplinary approach, including therapist(s), community supports, special education services, psychiatrist, primary care provider and sometimes medical specialists such as neurologists
  • There is no medication for core ASD symptoms, but medication can be used to address target symptoms such as irritability or aggression
  • Symptoms tend to begin during early childhood and can last throughout life
  • Early intervention is important, particularly from infancy to 3 years of age
  • No lab or imaging test can diagnose autism; diagnosis is made by professional evaluation by a specialist (example: psychologist, developmental pediatrician, child & adolescent psychiatrist) and/or specialized psychological testing
  • Latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data: one in 59 children now have autism, it is four times more common in boys versus girls, and it affects all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups

What to do if you’re looking for help:

Ask your child’s doctor if they lose skills they once had at any age or if they are not meeting developmental milestones (see CDC website for milestones based on ages).

Resources: