Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Overview

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is said to be a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a guide created by the American Psychiatric Association used to diagnose mental disorders, people with ASD have:

  • Difficulty with communication and interaction with other people
  • Restricted interests and repetitive behaviors
  • Symptoms that hurt the person’s ability to function properly in school, work, and other areas of life

Autism is known as a “spectrum” disorder because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. Although ASD can be a lifelong disorder, treatments and services can improve a person’s symptoms and ability to function

Signs and Symptoms of ASD

Social communication / interaction behaviors may include:

  • Making little or inconsistent eye contact
  • Tending not to look at or listen to people
  • Rarely sharing enjoyment of objects or activities by pointing or showing things to others
  • Failing to, or being slow to, respond to someone calling their name or to other verbal attempts to gain attention
  • Having difficulties with the back and forth of conversation
  • Often talking at length about a favorite subject without noticing that others are not interested or without giving others a chance to respond
  • 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

Restrictive / repetitive behaviors may include:

  • Repeating certain behaviors or having unusual behaviors. For example, repeating words or phrases, a behavior called echolalia
  • Having a lasting intense interest in certain topics, such as numbers, details, or facts
  • Having overly focused interests, such as with moving objects or parts of objects
  • Getting upset by slight changes in a routine
  • Being more or less sensitive than other people to sensory input, such as light, noise, clothing, or temperature

People with ASD may also experience sleep problems and irritability. Although people with ASD experience many challenges, they may also have many strengths, including:

  • Being able to learn things in detail and remember information for long periods of time
  • Being strong visual and auditory learners
  • Excelling in math, science, music, or art

Causes and Risk Factors

While scientists don’t know the exact causes of ASD, research suggests that genes can act together with influences from the environment to affect development in ways that lead to ASD. Although scientists are still trying to understand why some people develop ASD and others don’t, some risk factors include:

  • Having a sibling with ASD
  • Having older parents
  • Having certain genetic conditions—people with conditions such as Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and Rett syndrome are more likely than others to have ASD
  • Very low birth weight