Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. Today, an estimated 1 in 54 children (approximately 1.7%) in the United States have autism.
Let’s take a look at the signs of autism, how it’s diagnosed, and more.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can affect the ways a person interacts, communicates, and behaves.
Autism exists on a “spectrum” because sensory, social, and communication needs for autistic individuals can present across a spectrum from high to low.
Within the autism spectrum there is a range of support needs. Some autistic people need less support, while others may need more support.
ASD is considered a “neurodevelopmental disorder” because behavior patterns and differences in sensory issues and communication skills often appear before the age of 3. In some cases, these behaviors show up as early as 18 months.
Not all people will show every behavior, but for a doctor to make an autism diagnosis, a number of behaviors will be present.
These behaviors are characterized by varying degrees of differences with communication skills, social interactions, and other patterns of behavior.
Some signs and behaviors of ASD in children or adults may include:
- trouble relating to others or no interest in other people
- having more or less sensitivity than other people to sensory input, such as light, noise, clothing, or temperature
- avoiding eye contact and want to be alone
- trouble expressing their needs
- repeating actions
- having more sensitivity to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound
- not looking at objects when another person points at them
- trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
- not playing “pretend” games (for example, not pretending to “feed” a doll)
- trouble adapting when a routine changes
- not pointing at objects to show interest (for example, not pointing at an airplane flying over)
- repeating or echoing words or phrases said to them, or repeating words or phrases in place of usual language
- losing skills they once had (for example, stop saying words they were using)
- differences in speech tone or prosody
There’s no single known cause of autism.
Rather, researchers have identified some characteristics that may increase a person’s chance of developing the condition.
These factors include:
- having older parents
- having certain genetic conditions, such as:
- Down syndrome
- fragile X syndrome
- Rett syndrome
- having an autistic sibling
There’s still much to be learned about the causes of ASD. Researchers are still attempting to understand why some people develop ASD while others don’t.
Parents are usually the first to notice developmental differences in their child. If you notice any in your child, get them evaluated by their pediatrician or an autism professional. An early diagnosis can set them up for success.
Some signs that your child may benefit from an evaluation include:
- no babbling or pointing by age 1
- not speaking single words by 16 months or two-word phrases by age 2
- poor eye contact
- no smiling or other engaging expressions
- no response to their name
- losing previously acquired language or social skills
There’s not a medical test, like a blood test, for autism. But doctors will look at your child’s behavior and development to make a diagnosis.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism at all well-child visits in addition to the standard autism-specific screens at 18 and 24 months of age.
In older children and adolescents, teachers or parents may recognize autistic behaviors. It’s still a good idea to get additional testing by a pediatrician or primary care doctor to confirm the diagnosis.
Diagnosing autism in adults can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible. Doctors will likely need your developmental history to make a diagnosis. This may involve talking with your parents or family members and friends.
Supportive services are frequently offered after a child receives an autism diagnosis. These services can include therapy to help develop language and other communication skills, tools to manage behavior, and social skills.
There’s no single best way to manage autism. Remember, no two autistic people are alike. Supportive services, if desired or needed, are tailored to address the individual’s wants and needs.
For some, support may be centered around specific issues in:
- initiation of social interaction
Autism healthcare professionals may use the following therapies to help manage those issues:
- behavioral methods
- communication therapy
- occupational therapy
- physical therapy
- social play
Supportive services can continue as long as wanted. Sometimes, autistic people decide to change what supportive services they receive, or stop these services altogether.
Many autistic people don’t need much, if any, support.
Some autistic children and adults do need support to help manage their day to day. Talk with your pediatrician or doctor to create the right structure and guidance for you.
There are many ways to get started on the journey of ASD assessment and management, whether for yourself, your child, or your teen.
A good place to start is with your physician or family doctor. They can refer you to a specialist who will be able to do an in-depth evaluation and make a diagnosis.
If desired or needed, a management plan for ASD may include specialists and other resources. There are also organizations that can provide additional resources, information, and support.
Some possible specialists include:
- Developmental pediatricians. If you think your child has ASD, these doctors can evaluate your child’s development, make a diagnosis, and suggest a management plan.
- Child psychologists or psychiatrists. These doctors will use a variety of therapeutic techniques, such as behavioral and play therapy, to help your child’s mental, emotional, and social development.
- Child neurologist. Some autistic children also have seizures. If this is the case for your child, a neurologist may be needed. They may also help address issues with speech and motor skills.
- Physical therapist. These movement specialists help with the development of motor skills and basic movement skills. They build skills that will help your child learn to play games, sports, and other physical activities.
- Speech therapist. Speech therapists help with language and communication. They will help improve speech, nonverbal skills such as gestures and signs, and social communication.
- Occupational therapist. Programs with an occupational therapist will focus on developing social, physical, cognitive, and motor skills. They will work on play skills, self-care skills like dressing and eating, and learning strategies.
The following autism organizations and resources are also great places to find support and connect with other autistic people:
- Autism Society of America
- Autism Self Advocacy Network
- Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network
- Autism Research Institute
- Sesame Street and Autism
- Wrong Planet
For more information about additional services, click here.