The autism spectrum (officially known in the United States as “autism spectrum disorder” or ASD) consists of a wide range of lifelong neurodevelopmental conditions that can affect one’s general behavior, methods of communication, and social interactions. As a spectrum disorder, different autistic characteristics manifest in different ways for each individual; even a single person can display different traits at different times in their lives.
Some autistic people struggle to understand others’ thoughts and experiences. In turn, this can make it difficult for them to express themselves, whether through words, gestures, facial expressions, or physical touch. Due to the fundamental differences between neurotypical brain patterns and neurodivergent ones, autistic people may excel in areas that many non-autistic people struggle to comprehend, such as analytics and complex problem-solving.
Symptoms generally appear in early childhood, before the age of 3.
- Trouble maintaining eye contact
- Repetition of words, sounds, or movements
- High or low sensitivity to seemingly ordinary sounds, touches, smells, or sights
- Trouble listening to others
- Discomfort with interpersonal physical contact, such as hugging
- Trouble following visual indicators, such as pointing
- Problems understanding or appropriately using speech, gestures, facial expressions, or verbal tone
- Verbal patterns that may seem odd, such as speaking in a monotone voice
- Trouble adapting to change
- Very specific interests or intense interest in a limited number of topics
While it is likely that there is no singular cause, research suggests that a combination of genetic and environmental factors may influence early neurodevelopment in ways that lead to ASD. Individuals of any sex, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status may be diagnosed with autism.
Possible risk factors include
- Complicated pregnancies, including those sustained by sickly or malnourished mothers
- Maternal metabolic disorders during pregnancy, such as diabetes and obesity
- Prenatal stress
- Prenatal drug use
Due to the many variable symptoms associated with autism, it can be difficult to obtain a conclusive diagnosis without a comprehensive, multi-specialist team of professionals.
- Developmental screenings determine whether or not a child is on-track with basic skills like learning, speaking, behavior, and moving. Experts recommend that children receive screenings for developmental delays during their regular checkups at 9 months, 18 months, and 24 or 30 months of age. Children are routinely checked for autism specifically at their 18-month and 24-month checkups.
- If a screening indicates some sort of developmental problem, the next step is a thorough evaluation. Hearing and vision tests or genetic tests may be included.
- The pediatrician will likely bring in a child neurologist or a psychiatrist. Some psychiatrists may perform a test called the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), which is meant to measure a child’s social and behavioral tendencies.
There is no specific treatment that mitigates autism itself on a biological level, and there is no cure. The primary goal of treatment regarding autism is teaching children necessary life skills meant to improve quality of life and independence, though it is important to tailor such treatments to each individual’s unique needs.
There are two primary methods of treatment.
- Therapy – Behavioral and communication therapies are applied to help autistic individuals develop organizational skills and understand different social and daily structures. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) promotes positive behavior and discourages negative behavior. Occupational therapy works to develop and improve necessary life skills such as putting on and removing clothes, eating, and understanding others. Sensory integration therapy aims to assist children who struggle with physical touch, sights, or sounds. Speech therapy improves verbal communication skills.
- Medication – Autism is often comorbid with various medical conditions and disorders–such as epilepsy, anxiety, and ADHD–which can be managed through medication.
Support at Home
The autism spectrum encompasses individuals who require differing levels and types of support. Some may need help with basic life skills such as getting dressed, cooking meals, or using the bathroom. Others may need help with daily responsibilities like paying bills, doing laundry, taking care of household chores, or attending doctor appointments.
Additionally, it is common for autistic people to struggle with abrupt or drastic changes in their established routines, which can range from something major and permanent–like moving to a new town–to something seemingly minor and temporary–such as having lunch an hour later than usual.
Through joint efforts made by parents, doctors, and teachers, autistic children can be better equipped to deal with life’s various challenges. If treated with compassion and respect, autistic people can enjoy a much higher quality of life overall.