Autism 101: A Brief OverviewUnderstanding the wide range of symptoms and abilities of people with autism

It seems like everyone is talking about autism lately. But how much do you really know about this developmental disability? Below is an overview to help you learn more about what causes it, how it affects people and what treatment options are available.

Autism as a Lifelong Condition

Autism spectrum disorder, also known as ASD or autism, begins to show up in children before the age of three. Long considered a life-long condition, recent research found that some children diagnosed as young children no longer meet the criteria for autism as they reach school age. While boys are nearly four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls, it affects people of all races and all genders.

Individuals with autism often have social communication challenges and restricted, repetitive behaviors or interests. This can make it difficult for an individual to develop and maintain relationships and understand what behaviors are expected at school or work. Because the autism spectrum is so broad, some individuals need high levels of support in their day-to-day lives while others can live and work independently. A significant number of autistic people also have an intellectual disability (ID). When autism and ID occur together the level of disability the person has is more severe.

There is No One Cause of Autism

We don’t know what specifically leads to autism, but it’s most likely caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Being born prematurely or to older parents, experiencing complications at birth or having certain genetic conditions like fragile x or other chromosomal abnormality can increase the likelihood of having autism. Having a sibling or other family member with autism increases the chance, as well. Increasingly, we see children with major genetic disorders like fragile x also being diagnosed with autism. This is sometimes called syndromic autism.

Autism is typically diagnosed by psychologists or developmental pediatricians. The assessment for autism includes looking at the individual’s behavior, history and development. Even though autism can often be detected in a very young child, some people are not diagnosed until they are adults.

Autism Affects Everyone Differently

No two people are exactly alike. The signs and symptoms of autism can vary widely from person to person. For example, one person with autism may have trouble making eye contact while another person with autism does not.

Below are several communication and behavioral characteristics related to autism. These signs are not only associated with autism. For example, a very shy child without autism may not make good eye contact and children with intellectual disability without autism typically have delayed speech and language skills. For a more comprehensive list, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site:

  • Delayed speech and language skills
  • Avoiding or not keeping eye contact
  • Repeating words or phrases over and over
  • Getting overly upset by minor changes
  • Narrow or obsessive interests
  • Flapping hands, body rocking or spinning in circles
  • Displaying hyperactive, impulsive or inattentive behavior

Individuals with autism often have other co-occurring conditions such as asthma, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, gastrointestinal issues and sleeping disorders. In addition to the number of children with autism who also have ID about 30 to 40% of children with autism have ADHD and sensory issues such as extreme sensitivity to sounds, lights, smells, touch and pain.

Treatments and Interventions Can Improve Wellbeing

With the right support and services, individuals with autism can learn critical skills and improve their overall wellbeing. One of the most well-known treatments is applied behavior analysis (ABA), which is shown to increase communication and social skills and decrease disruptive behaviors in children and youth. ABA can be delivered by parents or a practitioner. When parents deliver the ABA, it’s called parent-mediated or parent-mediated ABA. In this delivery model, parents are given the training and tools they need to directly implement interventions for their child during the normal times the parent is parenting – like during dinner time or at the park.

ABA can also be delivered by a paraprofessional. This is called practitioner or paraprofessional-mediated ABA. In both ways of delivery, ABA the treatment plan and treatment is supervised by a clinician with specialized training. Speech, physical and occupational therapies are available, as well. Not all children need the same treatments or interventions. Each person and family is different and treatment plans should be tailored to the needs of the individual and family.

If children are under the age of 3, they may qualify for an early intervention program – a federally funded program that parents can enroll in at no cost. If they are 3 or older, they can receive special education services through their local school. There are also day programs that can help support adults with autism.

Where to Find More Information

If you’d like to learn about the latest autism research, treatment modalities and policy changes that affect this growing population, sign up to receive the monthly Catalyst newsletter today.