Have Questions? 877-282-4782

Autism Spectrum Disorders

young woman smiling at camera with green grass in background

Most of us can relate to some problems with social skills, communication, flexible behavior, or empathy. But a person with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) usually has challenges in all of those areas. However, there is a high degree of variation among people with ASD. The combination of symptoms and level of disability vary considerably. This is why it is referred to as a spectrum disorder.

ASD was classified as a single disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Health Disorders (DSM – V), but is really comprised of a spectrum of closely related disorders that share core symptoms. The three most common disorders are Asperger’s Syndrome, Autism, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. Typically, Asperger’s Syndrome symptoms are milder and people with this disorder are able to function fairly well. Classic autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder can be much more severe on the spectrum. Although the disorders share common symptoms, keep in mind that symptoms vary greatly in severity from person to person. In fact, two people with the same disorder can look completely different in terms of how the disorder manifests.

3 Important Facts

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder occurs in 1 out of every 68 children in the U.S. More boys are diagnosed than girls.
  • The majority of people with ASD fall on the milder end of the spectrum. Only 20 percent have classic autism.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder is usually diagnosed in childhood, but sometimes the diagnosis can be delayed.

Signs to look for

  • Lack of interest in other people
  • Difficulty experiencing empathy for others
  • Repetitive body movements (such as spinning, rocking, or hand flapping)
  • Doesn't seek company of others; prefers to be alone; acts aloof or cold
  • Doesn't like to be touched
  • Difficulty making friends the same age
  • Repetition of words and phrases without intent to communicate
  • Difficulty communicating needs and desires
  • Difficulty understanding simple statements or questions
  • Taking what is said literally; does not understand humor, satire or irony
  • Speaking with an odd pitch or rhythm, or speaking in an abnormal tone of voice
  • Obsession with a specific topic of interest (such as bugs or horses); may be related to numbers or symbols (maps, sports statistics, etc.)
  • Gets upset when routine is disrupted has a strong need for order and consistency
  • Attachment to unusual objects (such as keys, light switches, or rubber bands)
  • Fascination with pieces, parts, spinning objects or moving parts

It is important to note that when dealing with children or teens with ASD, they may appear to be defiant without intention. Because they fail to detect or misinterpret social cues, they may respond to adult instruction in a manner that seems (but may not be) willfully defiant.

Next steps

Every person’s pattern of exhibiting Autism Spectrum Disorder is unique. That means caregivers need to find treatment that meets the individual needs of the person with ASD. When selecting a treatment option for a child or teen with Autism Spectrum Disorder, then, it is critical to ensure that the treatment team has experience, training and success working with this disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health suggests a list of questions parents can ask when planning for their child:

  • How successful has the program been for other children?
  • How many children have gone on to placement in a regular school and how have they performed?
  • Will my child be given tasks and rewards that are personally motivating?
  • Is the environment designed to minimize distractions?
  • Will the program prepare me to continue the therapy at home?
  • What is the cost, time commitment, and location of the program?
  • Do staff members have training and experience in working with children and adolescents with autism?
  • How are activities planned and organized?
  • Are there predictable daily schedules and routines?
  • How much individual attention will my child receive?
  • How is progress measured? Will my child’s behavior be closely observed and recorded?

Although there is no cure for Autism Spectrum Disorder, with treatment, children and teens can make significant progress with social skills, speech and language. Treatment may include a combination of special education, behavior modification, therapy, medication to manage symptoms, and physical or occupational therapy. Some children and teens with ASD also have a co-occurring behavioral disorder, further complicating treatment and requiring a combination of psychotherapeutic and behaviorally oriented approaches.

Common Q and A

What causes Autism Spectrum Disorder?

We don’t know exact causes of ASD. However, research suggests several factors may play a role. This includes genetics, metabolic or neurological factors, certain types of infections and difficulties that occur at birth.

Can vaccines cause Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Although it was widely speculated that vaccines cause ASD, to date there has been no evidence this is the case.

How is Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosed?

A psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional qualified to diagnose ASD should be involved in the process of giving a diagnosis. Usually a diagnosis is made after an observation of speech and behavior.

What is the outlook for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder?

This greatly depends on severity of symptoms, age of diagnosis and treatment, and availability of resources to the person with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Some have symptoms too severe to be able to function independently. Others are able to lead relatively normal lives. Typically, those with higher intelligence who are able to communicate have the best outlook.

What if I suspect my child has ASD, but he/she has not been diagnosed?

Some high-functioning teens or adults never receive a diagnosis because their symptoms were relatively mild. If you suspect your child has ASD, visit with your doctor and a mental health professional qualified to diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder. Then, if necessary, you can work with them to create a treatment plan.