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What are Autism Spectrum Disorders?

Autism spectrum disorder is the name of a group of developmental disorders. Symptoms and behaviors of an autism spectrum disorder can vary, ranging from mild to severe. Autism is the most common autism spectrum disorder. The next most common is Asperger’s syndrome. An autism spectrum disorder is often diagnosed in children.

The reason autism spectrum disorders are called “spectrum” disorders is that they affect people differently and to different degrees. Symptoms and behaviors can vary, ranging from mild to severe. For this reason, treatment plans are highly individualized.

Children and adults who have an autism spectrum disorder often have these symptoms:

  • Trouble communicating
  • Difficulty with social interactions
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Sensitivity to sounds, sights, or sensations

Diagnosis and Tests

Symptoms of autism spectrum disorders are often observed in the first 2 years of life. Studies show that early, individualized, and intensive treatment has the most positive impact on the abilities of individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

There is no single test to diagnose an autism spectrum disorder. Instead, doctors will rely on the following:

  • Checklists and questionnaires from parents, school professionals, and medical specialists who have observed the person in various situations. The questionnaires ask about the person’s behaviors, relationships with others, body use, verbal communication, and play habits.
  • Standard medical criteria. A doctor diagnoses autism spectrum disorder only if the information gathered meets certain criteria. You doctor will gather information using checklists and questionnaires and will interview and observe your child.
  • Medical tests. Additional tests might be used to get more information. These tests don’t diagnose an autism spectrum disorder, but they can help rule out or discover other conditions that may be causing symptoms (or making them worse).
  • Hearing evaluations to rule out hearing problems and speech and language evaluations to assess speech, language, and overall communication abilities. These evaluations are very important because an autism spectrum disorder has a significant effect on overall communication skills.
  • Evaluation by specialists. Consulting with one or more specialists can often be helpful in the complex process of diagnosing an autism spectrum disorder.

When to See a Doctor

It’s important to visit your doctor early if your child shows signs of autism spectrum disorder such as difficulty communicating or repetitive behavior. Your doctor will refer you to a specialist if needed.

Studies show that early, individualized, and intensive treatment has the most positive impact on the abilities of a person with an autism spectrum disorder. Therapy for specific functional problems might even begin before a formal diagnosis is complete.

Since no single strategy works with every person, individualized treatment chooses and combines strategies to meet a person’s unique needs. An intensive approach means a patient is engaged actively and productively in meaningful activities for a minimum of 25 hours per week — with a treatment provider, family members, caregivers, or teachers. Each strategy aims at the same overall goal: reducing symptoms and helping the person with autism succeed in various settings and relationships. Common treatments for autism spectrum disorder include:

  • SCERTS Model. This model addresses key areas of weakness for autism spectrum disorders, such as social communication and emotional regulation, along with helping caregivers provide transaction supports that build on a child’s strengths. The SCERTS model helps families incorporate skills learned in treatment into the family’s everyday routines (such as getting dressed, meals, or playtime).
  • Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). Traditional ABA uses highly structured teaching activities that focus on specific educational concepts. Contemporary ABA is more flexible. It uses positive behavioral support and incidental teaching (teaching that occurs within ongoing activities and is based on the student’s interest and motivation). Treatment involves up to 40 hours a week for two years.
  • Parent-led treatment. These programs are based on a parent coaching model — a consultant teaches parents and family members, who then work with the child. Play-centered therapy emphasizes the child’s interests and interactions between child and parent. “Floor time” exercises aim to help children improve skills in attention, communication, and logical thought.
  • Sensory Integration Therapy. This occupational therapy model helps people with autism integrate and use sensory information to better function in daily life. Occupational therapy with this approach helps people improve emotional regulation and motor skills for daily living and play.
  • Listening Program. This music-based program, when combined with other approaches, can help people improve their skills in processing sounds.
  • Visual strategies. For children who struggle with spoken language, these strategies help him or her communicate by exchanging pictures.

Many children with an autism spectrum disorder face other developmental problems. The most common are attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, learning disabilities, depression, and bipolar disorder. These can lead to symptoms that are often treated with medication:

  • Medication to reduce tantrums, self-injury, or aggression. Your doctor may prescribe risperidone (Risperdal) or a similar medication if your child has trouble with severe tantrums or aggression.
  • Medication to reduce hyperactivity or lack of attention. Children with autism sometimes have problems focusing on tasks, and feel a need to be moving all the time. Your doctor may prescribe medication to help your child focus.
  • Medication to reduce anxiety, repetitive behaviors or routines. To address these symptoms, your doctor may prescribe an appropriate medication. There are several alternatives, so if the first medication prescribed doesn’t help, your doctor can prescribe a different one.

People with autism often face other specific medical problems as well, and treating them can reduce autism spectrum disorder symptoms. Talk to your care team if you notice any of these:

  • Difficulties with eating. Children with autism spectrum disorders can take picky eating to the extreme — refusing foods based on texture or type, or eating only specific foods.
  • Gastrointestinal problems. People with autism spectrum disorders can have cramps, diarrhea, and bloating.
  • Sleep disturbances. People with autism spectrum disorders often have trouble falling asleep, or wake early in the morning.

After trying therapy or medication, if your child continues to struggle with the problems listed above — and if they disrupt relationships or routines at home, school, work, or with friends — talk with your doctor about consulting a mental health provider who specializes in autism spectrum disorders.

Support and Resources

Autism spectrum disorder is a term used for a group of developmental disorders in both children and adults. Autism is the most common autism spectrum disorder. The reason they are called “spectrum” disorders is that they affect people differently and to different ages. Learn more about the different types of autism spectrum disorders.