Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex disorder that many people have a lot of questions about. There are many misconceptions about ASD. Fictional characters with ASD on television shows and movies, such as Big Bang Theory, Rain Man, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, represent only a small portion of individuals diagnosed with the disorder. Dr. Stephen Shore gave us a common phrase used to describe individuals with Autism – “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
So, what is Autism?
ASD is a developmental disorder, which means these individuals often appear to be behind others their age in social, communication, and/or behavioral skills. Some people with ASD might be successful at school on their own, and others might need support in the classroom. Like all children, children with ASD have things that they might excel in while also experiencing difficulties in other things.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC, 2018), 1 in 59 children are diagnosed with ASD. Males are more often diagnosed than females. Although there is no medical test to detect ASD, the disorder can be detected by a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation as early as age 2 years. If parents have concerns about their child’s development at any time, they should talk with their pediatrician immediately. Early detection and intervention are considered the best predictor of outcomes in children diagnosed with ASD.
What should caregivers look for?
With ASD, there are two different categories children might experience difficulties in:
#1 - Social/Communication Skills
Children with ASD might struggle to have back-and-forth conversations or may not know how to start conversations. They may not seem interested in what others think or what they are doing. They might not engage in non-verbal communication skills such as using gestures like nodding their heads “yes” or “no.” They may also have difficulty making eye contact with others or struggle to make more than a few facial expressions. Children might also struggle to make friends or seem like they do not want to become friends with others, especially with kids their own age, and they may struggle to engage in imaginary play.
#2 - Restricted, Repetitive Behaviors
Children with ASD sometime engage in what are called “restricted and repetitive behaviors.” Examples include lining or stacking objects, repeating what others say, or talking in what might be considered an odd way. Children with ASD might need to have things the same way all of the time, struggle with changes in routines and schedules, or have to say something a particular way every time. Children with ASD might have very specific interests, such as a favorite television show or book they talk about or repeat frequently, or a strong interest in something that others might consider “odd.” They also might struggle with certain food or clothing textures, loud noises, or seem to not notice pain.
It is important to remember that a child with ASD might not show all of the behaviors listed above. Some early signs of ASD include lack of expression or eye contact by 6 months, not smiling in response to someone smiling at them by 9 months, not responding to their name or not using basic gestures such as pointing by 12 months of age, and delayed speech by 2 years. It is important to remember that these signs might also be symptoms of something else. If you notice any of these symptoms in your child, consult with your pediatrician or family therapist to determine if an evaluation for ASD might be necessary.
For more information on ASD symptoms in young children, or to find out if your child appears to show behaviors related to ASD, please see the resources listed below:
Samantha Smith, PsyD
Staff Psychologist at The Children's Center Utah