What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
by Arden Bordes, Randi Olivier, Nikki Tomboli, and Jenna Tynes
“Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication1”. “Spectrum” reflects the variation in unique challenges and strengths possessed by each person with this disorder. Although the cause of ASD is unknown, different combinations of genetic and environmental factors are thought to influence the disorder. ASD can be found in people all around the world and among all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. In the United States alone, ASD is the fastest-growing developmental disability affecting 1 in 68 individuals2. Males are nearly five times more likely than females to have ASD1.
Individuals with ASD often exhibit difficulties in three core areas: social engagement, repetitive behaviors, and communication1. Common social engagement deficits may include trouble making eye contact, lack of personal space, difficulty empathizing with others, lack of close relationships with peers. Engaging in repetitive behaviors is a common tendency seen in individuals with ASD. Examples of repetitive behaviors may include: hand-flapping, rocking, repeating sounds, words, and phrases, and intense preoccupations1. An individual with ASD may also demonstrate communicative difficulties. Communication encompasses expressive language (what they can say), receptive language (what they can understand), and pragmatics (social skills). However, each case of ASD is unique because the level of severity in the three core areas can present itself differently in each individual.
It is important to understand that individuals with ASD also possess strengths and differences that can balance the challenges that come from living with this disorder. Strengths can include attention to detail, unusual interest and knowledge about random subject matter (electronics, car engines, etc.), and excellent rote memory. A more detailed list of strengths and differences can be found here. If you suspect your child or someone you know has this disorder, early identification and intervention is very important. Seeking a qualified health professional such as a pediatrician, neurologist, or a psychiatrist is the first step to receiving a proper diagnosis. After this step, pursuing specific therapies may be recommended in order to support the individual’s development and learning which may include: speech-language, behavioral, occupational, or physical therapies. Despite the challenges you may experience as a parent, family member, educator, or one of the many people who help individuals on the spectrum, our hope is that understanding what ASD is will make your experiences with these distinctive people more meaningful and joyful.
1Autism Speaks (2012). Facts about autism. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/facts-about-autism
2Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2012). Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Retrieved September 15, 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html