What is Autism?
Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability. ASD refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by difficulties with social interactions, challenging and repetitive behaviors, and difficulties with speech and communication. Individuals with autism struggle with interacting with others, building and maintaining relationships, communicating, and regulating their emotions and behaviors. The range and severity of symptoms can vary widely from mild impairment to significant cognitive, behavioral, and physical impairment.
What is the Spectrum?
Autism is not a one-size fits all disorder. There are many sub-types of the condition. Autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome, for example, used to be diagnosed separately. Now, each of these conditions are included in autism spectrum disorder.
ASD manifestations can and often do look different among individuals diagnosed. Those on the spectrum—a range between two extremes—have distinct sets of strengths and weaknesses. How individuals with ASD think, learn, and interact with others can range from highly-skilled to severely impaired. The term “spectrum” in ASD refers to both the wide range of symptoms and the severity of those symptoms.
What Causes Autism?
ASD has no single known cause. Research suggests ASD develops from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The presence of these factors increase the likelihood a child will develop ASD.
Researchers have identified many genes they consider to be strongly or indirectly associated with ASD. Changes or mutations to these genes can lead to ASD. However, not everyone with mutations to these genes will develop ASD. Specific testing for these mutations can be discussed with appropriate medical specialists.
Environmental factors, in combination with genetic factors, may play a role in the development of ASD. Researchers are currently exploring factors such as viral infections, medications, pregnancy complications, or air pollutants to determine if they have a role in triggering the development of ASD.
Though ASD has no known single cause, no reliable study has shown a link between vaccines and ASD. Scientists have conducted extensive research over multiple decades exploring a possible link between ASD and vaccines. The research has been clear, no link has been established. In fact, the original study that suggested a link between vaccines and ASD has been discredited and retracted due to poor study design and questionable research methods.
What are Common Symptoms and Characteristics Associated with ASD?
While individuals with ASD likely have a unique pattern of behavior and level of severity (mild to significant impairment), there are some common symptoms that are associated with ASD including difficulties with communication, social interaction, and behaviors.
Difficulties with Communication
- Delayed speech and verbal skills, may be non-verbal
- Repeats words or phrases (echolalia) but doesn’t understand how to use them
- Speaks with abnormal tone or rhythm
- Difficulty starting or continuing a conversation
- Doesn’t understand simple questions or directions
- Does not point or respond to pointing
- Uses few or no gestures or does not respond to gestures
Difficulties with Social Interaction
- Has poor eye contact and facial expressions
- Doesn’t express emotions and seems unaware of others’ emotions
- Avoids or restricts physical contact and seems to prefer being alone
- Only interacts with others to achieve a desired object or action
- Struggles to understand non-verbal cues (body language, tone of voice, facial expression)
- Does not understand personal boundaries (personal space)
Difficulties with Behaviors
- Exhibits self-stimulating behaviors (repetitive movements including hand flapping, rocking, pacing, spinning, etc.) or “stimming”
- Intense focus or fixation on a specific item, activity, or topic
- Engages in self-harming behaviors (head-banging, biting, scratching, etc.)
- Adheres to rigid routines or schedules
- Does not adapt to changes, becomes upset with minor changes or deviations from a routine
- Doesn’t engage in imaginative or pretend play
- May exhibit aggressive behaviors toward others
In addition, individuals with ASD frequently experience other conditions or characteristics such as:
- Intellectual disability
- Sensory challenges (extreme response to touch, sounds, lights, etc.)
- Seizure disorders
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Elopement (wandering away)
- Difficulties eating (aversion to certain foods or textures)
- Difficulty sleeping