A Parent's Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Autism Awareness


What are Autism Spectrum Disorders?

Fact Sheet Number 1 (FS1), NICHCY

Ryan's Story

Ryan is a healthy, active two-year-old, but his parents are concerned because he doesn’t seem to be doing the same things that his older sister did at this age. He’s not really talking, yet; although sometimes, he repeats, over and over, words that he hears others say. He doesn’t use words to communicate, though. It seems he just enjoys the sounds of them. Ryan spends a lot of time playing by himself. He has a few favorite toys, mostly cars, or anything with wheels on it! And sometimes, he spins himself around as fast as he does the wheels on his cars. Ryan’s parents are really concerned, as he’s started throwing a tantrum whenever his routine has the smallest change. More and more, his parents feel stressed, not knowing what might trigger Ryan’s next upset.

Often, it seems Ryan doesn’t notice or care if his family or anyone else is around. His parents just don’t know how to reach their little boy, who seems so rigid and far too set in his ways for his tender young age. After talking with their family doctor, Ryan’s parents call the Early Intervention office in their community and make an appointment to have Ryan evaluated.

When the time comes, Ryan is seen by several professionals who play with him, watch him, and ask his parents a lot of questions. When they’re all done, Ryan is diagnosed with autism, one of the five disorders listed under an umbrella category of “Pervasive Developmental Disorders”—a category that’s often referred to as simply the “autism spectrum.”

As painful as this is for his parents to learn, the early intervention staff encourage them to learn more about the autism spectrum. By getting an early diagnosis and beginning treatment, Ryan has the best chance to grow and develop. Of course, there's a long road ahead, but his parents take comfort in knowing that they aren't alone and they're getting Ryan the help he needs.

What are the signs of Autism Spectrum Disorders?

Each of the disorders on the autism spectrum is a neurological disorder that affects a child's ability to communicate, understand language, play, and relate to others. They share some or all of the following characteristics, which can vary from mild to severe:

These characteristics are typically evident before age 3.

Children with autism or one of the other disorders on the autism spectrum can differ considerably with respect to their abilities, intelligence, and behavior. Some children don’t talk at all. Others use language where phrases or conversations are repeated. Children with the most advanced language skills tend to talk about a limited range of topics and to have a hard time understanding abstract concepts. Repetitive play and limited social skills are also evident. Other common symptoms of a disorder on the autism spectrum can include unusual and sometimes uncontrolled reactions to sensory information—for instance, to loud noises, bright lights, and certain textures of food or fabrics. (Return to top)

What are the Specific Disorders on the Autism Spectrum?

There have been five disorders classified under the umbrella category officially known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders, or PDD. As shown below, these are:

Although there are subtle differences and degrees of severity between these five conditions, the treatment and educational needs of a child with any of these disorders will be very similar. For that reason, the term “autism spectrum disorder”—or ASD— became the official term for all forms of autism in 2013 (see the section below called "A Look at ASD Diagnoses in the Future").³

The five conditions were defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) of the American Psychiatric Society (2000). This was also the manual used to diagnose autism and its associated disorders, as well as a wide variety of other disabilities.

According to the 2000 edition of the DSM-IV, a diagnosis of autistic disorder (or “classic” autism) is made when a child displays 6 or more of 12 symptoms across three major areas:

When children display similar behaviors but do not meet the specific criteria for autistic disorder, they may be diagnosed as having one of the other disorders on the spectrum—Aspergers, Rett’s, childhood disintegrative disorder, or PDDNOS. PDDNOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) is the least specific diagnosis and typically means that a child has displayed the least specific of autistic-like symptoms or behaviors and has not met the criteria for any of the other disorders.

Terminology used with autism spectrum disorders can be a bit confusing, especially the use of PDD and PDD-NOS to refer to two different things that are similar and intertwined. Still, it’s important to remember that, regardless of the specific diagnosis, treatments will be similar. (Return to Top)

How Common Are ASDs?

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates, some form of autism affects 1 in every 68 U.S. children as of 2014.4 ASDs are four times more common in boys than in girls, although Rett Syndrome has only been diagnosed in girls.5 (Return to Top)

What Causes an ASD?

The causes of autism and the other disorders on the spectrum are not known. Researchers are currently studying such areas as neurological damage and chemical imbalances within the brain.6

A Look at ASD Diagnoses in the Future

In early 2010, the American Psychiatric Association released draft revisions to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and invited comments from both professionals and the general public. The final and official fifth revision of the DSM was published in May 2013.7

The DSM-5 affects how autism and associated disorders are diagnosed. Among the revisions are:

Is There Help Available?

Yes, there is a lot of help available, beginning with the free evaluation of the child. The nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), requires that all children suspected of having a disability be evaluated without cost to their parents to determine if they do have a disability and, because of the disability, need special services under IDEA. Those special services are:

Under IDEA, children with a disorder on the autism spectrum are usually found eligible for services under the category of “autism.” In the fall of 2005, more than 160,000 school-aged children (3-21) received special education and related services in the public schools under the “autism” category.9 IDEA specifically defines “autism” as follows:

To have a child evaluated to see if he or she has a disability, including one on the autism spectrum, or to access early intervention services for a child up to his or her 3rd birthday, we recommend consulting the State Resource Sheet for your state. The agency listed there will be able to put you in contact with the early intervention program in your community.

To have a school-aged child evaluated for ASD or to access special education services for a school-aged child, we recommend getting in touch with your local public school system. Calling the elementary school in your neighborhood is an excellent place to start.(Return to Top)

What About School?

Early diagnosis and intervention are very important for children with an ASD. As we’ve mentioned, under IDEA children with an ASD may be eligible for early intervention services (birth to 3) and an educational program appropriate to their individual needs.

In addition to academic instruction, special education programs for students with ASDs focus on improving communication, social, academic, behavioral, and daily living skills. Behavior and communication problems that interfere with learning often require the assistance of a professional who is particularly knowledgeable in the autism field to develop and help implement a plan which can be carried out at home and school.

The classroom environment should be structured so that the program is consistent and predictable. Students with an ASD learn better and are less confused when information is presented visually as well as verbally. Interaction with nondisabled peers is also important, for these students provide models of appropriate language, social, and behavioral skills. Consistency and continuity are very important for children with an ASD, and parents should always be involved in the development of their child’s program, so that learning activities, experiences, and approaches will be most effective and can be carried over into the home and community.

With educational programs designed to meet a student’s individual needs and specialized adult support services in employment and living arrangements, many children and adults with a disability on the autism spectrum grow to live, work, and participate fully in their communities.(Return to Top)

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