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Guide to Autism: For Parents and Physicians

March 23, 2021
Reviewed by Lara Wengert, MS,CCC-SLP, Chief Clinical Compliance Officer

April is World Autism Month or Autism Awareness Month. The goal of this milestone month is to educate and inform people about the condition that affects so many in our society.

CDC (Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention) report that approximately 1 in 54 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism. Breaking this down, 1 in 34 boys are identified while 1 in 144 girls are diagnosed with autism. Still, some people do not know the meaning of autism or its implications. It is a condition that causes challenges in social interaction, speech and nonverbal communication, and restricted/repetitive behaviors. However, the severity of symptoms is different in each person.

A Look at Autism

It may or may not come as a surprise that there is more than one type of autism. There are actually 3 sub-types within the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) category. They include Asperger syndrome, autistic disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder. Here are some of the differentiating characteristics within the sub-types:

  • Asperger Syndrome: a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome is associated with various unusual, or atypical behaviors including “awkward” or rigid social skills, difficulty relating to others, repetitive behaviors and/or extremely focused interest in limited subject matters. Intellectual functioning may not be impaired. Although this is considered a developmental disorder, those diagnosed with this sub-type of autism generally show higher than average cognitive functioning.
     
  • Autistic Disorder: a diagnosis of autistic disorder indicates that the individual likely exhibits the more “classic” signs and symptoms characterized by autism. Leading indicators of this diagnosis include impaired intellect, significantly impaired communication and social skills, repetitive behaviors, sensory challenges, and unusual interests as compared to same age peers.
     
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD): this diagnosis refers to a group of conditions that may be represented by generalized and less specific indicators across several developmental domains such as cognition, social skills and receptive and/or expressive communication challenges.

What Causes Autism?

Research to date has not provided concise answers as to what causes autism however, there does seem to be a genetic component that increases the risk of autism between family members. Environmental risk factors may contribute to the genetic influence of an autism diagnosis. For example, advanced age of either parent, pregnancy and birth complications, or the spacing of pregnancies (less than one year apart) may increase risk. On the other hand, prenatal vitamins containing folic acid taken before, at conception and throughout pregnancy may decrease the risk.

Screening for Autism

Autism requires a developmental screening and a comprehensive evaluation conducted by a medical professional. Although some children are not identified as at risk for a diagnosis of autism until the age of four years old, autism may be diagnosed as early as 18-24 months of age. The earlier a child is diagnosed with autism; the earlier intervention may be implemented to benefit the child’s developmental skills. Medical professionals qualified to provide a diagnosis of autism work with ancillary service providers to obtain diagnostic data including speech and language skills, gross and fine motor skills, and general cognitive functioning, as compared to same age peers.

Autism and Social Development

Children and adults who have been diagnosed with ASD most often require intervention to address atypical social skills. Although these individuals may have a strong desire to relate to their peers, it is challenging for them to interact and grasp social nuances such as turn-taking, eye contact, joint attention, and perspective-taking. They may also feel overwhelmed by social interactions, larger groups of people and new situations. However, intervention techniques provided by trained professionals provide effective strategies to assist those with ASD, leading to greater success at navigating their environment with increased independence.

Communication and the Child with Autism

Communication difficulties are the most prevalent characteristic of an autism diagnosis. Some individuals may be characterized as “nonverbal” and require augmentative communication devices and/or aides. Some of the different patterns of language use and behaviors may include repetitive and rigid language. Children with autism may use “rote” words and phrases that do not necessarily correlate with the meanings of those words. Language abilities vary considerably with one individual who can deliver an in-depth monologue about a specific topic that holds their interest but is unable to hold a functional conversation. An estimated 10 percent of children diagnosed with ASD may exhibit “savant” skills, as demonstrated by extremely high intelligence regarding focused areas such as music, math, or memorization. In addition to verbal communication challenges, individuals with ASD may be challenged by interpreting nonverbal communication skills such as body language and gestures.

Sensory Challenges and Hyposensitivity

Sensory challenges refer to the difficulty processing noise, touch, smell, visual stimuli, and tastes. Those with sensory hyposensitivity may have decreased response to pain. Loud noises may significantly impact the individual’s level of comfort in different situations. The lack of sensory information may also lead to the individual seeking constant motion and/or other sensations. They often experience more injuries and are constantly in movement.

Managing a Child with ASD

Children with autism sometimes present breakdowns and tantrums more frequently than their same age peers. These situations may be brought on by lack of routine, social stimulation, communication barriers and/or anxiety. Caregivers of individuals diagnosed with autism require a great deal of patience, understanding, diligence and compassion. Ancillary services provide intervention to assist caregivers in their roles, as well as those individuals they serve, to live to their greatest potential with a diagnosis of ASD.

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