Just as the spectrum of light includes all different colors, the spectrum of autism contains many different people and symptoms. Different people with autism--including those diagnosed with Asperger’s or PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disability)--can have very different symptoms in varying degrees of severity.
Health care providers think of autism as a “spectrum” disorder, a group of disorders with similar features. One person may have mild symptoms, while another may have more severe symptoms, but both have an autism spectrum disorder.
Autism is a complex developmental disability that causes difficulties in many areas, with varying degrees of severity, most notably with social interaction and communication. People with autism also have differences and often difficulty with interpreting and processing sensory information.
Symptoms usually start before age three and can cause delays or problems in many different skills that develop from infancy to adulthood. Every person with autism is unique and has different abilities and challenges.
What are the symptoms of autism?
The main signs and symptoms of autism involve problems in these areas:
Communication skills - including verbal (spoken) and non-verbal (unspoken, including eye contact, facial expression and body language). People on the spectrum may have difficulty with sharing or receiving information, ideas, and/or feelings with others in such a way that both parties understand the messages.
Social skills – including sharing emotions, understanding how others think and feel, and holding a conversation, taking turns, engaging in typical social behavior, understanding social rules.
Sensory Processing challenges - including experiencing, registering, recognizing, or interpreting information received through the stimulation of any of the body’s senses. Senses include the traditionally known five senses—visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), tactile (touch), olfactory (smell), and taste. There are also 4 traditionally less well known senses: thermoception, the ability to detect hot and cold temperature on the skin and inside the body; nociception, the ability to detect pain or to sense damage to bodily tissue; equilibrioception, also known as the vestibular sense, the sense of balance and movement or acceleraction (whether the body is speeding up or slowing down) and is related to the fluid within the inner ear; proprioception, the sense of body awareness, knowing where the body is in space, what various parts of the body may be feeling or where and how they are moving.
Many people with ASD have difficulty processing sensory information, or have extremely sensitive and highly tuned senses or both. Often people with ASD may become overwhelmed with sensory information and not know how to manage all the stimulation. This can sometimes result in “shutdown” (withdrawing, covering ears, inability to talk or engage with others), or “melt-down” (noisy outbursts, yelling, screaming, showing tantrum-like behaviors). Being and becoming more aware of how your body and brain receive and process sensory information in different kinds of situations can be very important to your well-being
Routines or repetitive behaviors (also called stereotyped behaviors) - such as repeating words or actions, obsessively following routines or schedules, and playing in repetitive ways.
The symptoms of autism can usually be observed by 18 months of age, some professionals believe the signs can be seen as early as infancy and in newborns.
What is Asperger’s Disorder?
Also known as Asperger’s Syndrome, Asperger’s is also a developmental disability which creates difficulties in communication and social interaction. Asperger's is no longer included in new DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), but a great many people still identify with Asperger's and professionals still use the term as well. The criteria for diagnosis of Aspeger’s in the previous edition of the DSM (IV-TR) was very similar to that of autism, with the exception that in order for a person to receive a diagnosis of Asperger’s, he or she must never have had a language development delay and no intellectual disability.
What is a Pervasive Developmental Disability (PDD)?
A Pervasive Developmental Disability or Disorder is also developmental disability characterized by impairment in several areas of development including social skills, communication, verbal and non-verbal skills. When a person receives a diagnosis of PDD, or PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified) this means that they exhibit impairment in those areas and may share several of the symptoms of autism and/or Asperger’s, or some other mental health disorders usually first seen in childhood, but do not fit the criteria specifically for any one of those. This diagnostic label also no longer exists in the DSM-5.
What are the treatments for autism?
There is no cure for autism, nor is there one single treatment for autism spectrum disorders. But there are ways to help minimize the symptoms of autism and to maximize learning.
Behavioral therapy and other therapeutic options
Behavior management therapy helps to reinforce desirable behaviors, and reduce unwanted behaviors. It is often based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).
Speech-language therapists can help people with autism improve their ability to communicate and interact with others.
Occupational therapists can help people find ways to adjust tasks to match their needs and abilities as well as help manage the often extensive impact of sensory perception difficulties (sensitivity to light, sound, tactile sensation).
Physical therapists design activities and exercise to build motor control and improve posture and balance.
Psychotherapists and counselors with experience in working with people with autism and their families can help alleviate other symptoms of other mental health disorders which often co-occur with autism spectrum disorders including depression, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders as well as assist families with family therapy as needed.
Public schools are required to provide free, appropriate public education from age 3 through high school or age 21, whichever comes first.
Typically, a team of people, including the parents, teachers, caregivers, school psychologists, and other child development specialists work together to design an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to help guide the child’s school experiences.
Currently there are no medications that can cure autism spectrum disorders or all of the symptoms. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any medications specifically for the treatment of autism, but in many cases medication can treat some of the symptoms associated with autism.