Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder

By Bonnie Steele. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

It’s estimated that one in every 50 children in America is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a general term that refers to a group of brain development disorders. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this makes ASD more prevalent than pediatric cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined.

While its signs and symptoms tend to emerge between the ages of 2 and 3, only 20 percent of children who have symptoms consistent with ASD receive a formal diagnosis by age 3, says Jonathan Tarbox, PhD, director of research and development at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders in Thousand Oaks, Calif. 

Signs of ASD

“Early signs that might indicate autism include resistance to being cuddled, poor eye contact, preference to play alone, an unusual attachment to objects and/or lack of using gestures to communicate,” says pediatric neuropsychologist Julie Knapp, PhD, who specializes in children with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental concerns.  

ASD may also cause difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication, repetitive behaviors and poor social interaction skills. However, many who are diagnosed have exceptional visual, music and academic skills.

According to Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, ASD is four to five times more common among boys than girls.

While there is no single cause for autism, research suggests a number of influences, including autism risk genes and environmental factors (ranging from harmful substances ingested during pregnancy to low folic acid).

Types of ASD

ASD affects everyone differently. The terminology used to diagnose autism is changing, but historically, three main categories have been used:

  • Autistic disorder: This classic form of autism may be characterized by language delays, social and communication challenges, repetitive behaviors and unusually fixed or restricted interests. Individuals may also have intellectual disabilities, says Knapp.  
  • Asperger’s syndrome: Though language and intellectual disabilities are not usually symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, individuals may have milder symptoms of autistic disorder, such as social challenges and unusual behaviors and interests. 
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specific (PDD-NOS): When an individual meets only some of the criteria for autistic disorder or Asperger’s syndrome, they are classified as PDD-NOS.

Next Steps

In many cases, the earlier autism is recognized, the more effective the therapies and interventions. Early intervention with proven behavioral therapies, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA), can improve outcomes, says Tarbox. ABA is a form of therapy that focuses on learning, in addition to positive reinforcement that encourages alternatives to abnormal, repetitive behavior. This type of therapy is also used to help autistic individuals acquire useful and functional skills.  

“The prevalence of autism is on the rise, but treatments are more effective and available on a broader basis,” adds Tarbox. “There is a lot of work to still be done, however.”

For parents and people who are just beginning to fully accept and understand an autism diagnosis, tools and resources on Autism Speaks may be helpful.

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