July 15, 2018

What Is Autistic Spectrum Disorder?

Autistic Spectrum Disorder

Autistic spectrum disorder might bring to mind images of disruptive kids in the classroom. But it is a disorder that is so misunderstood. Let’s dive deeper and really try to understand it a lot better.

The autistic spectrum is a classification system of disorders on the Autistic Spectrum. Autism Speaks in 2013 reogranized the disorders to fit under one umbrella term ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder)

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) described Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as “a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behaviour.”

Are There Categories Of Autistic Spectrum Disorder?

Yes there are 5 main groups within the Autistic spectrum disorder.

They are:

1) Autism Disorder (Classic Autism) This is the most severe of the Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Individuals diagnosed with Classic Autism are on a spectrum of their own, ranging from mild to severe cases.

2) Childhood Disintegrative Disorder  This is “a condition in which children develop normally through age 3 or 4. Then, over a few months, children lose language, motor, social, and other skills that they already learned.” (U.S. Library of Medicine ). This condition is reported to be similar to Classic Autism, but generally in the more severe form. Intervention is generally similar to that of Classic Autism as well.

3) Asperger Syndrome This syndrome is more like Classic Autism than any of the others, however, it’s considered a less severe diagnosis. WebMD says, “…children with Asperger’s syndrome generally have normal intelligence and near-normal language development, although they may develop problems communicating as they get older.”

Once again, this is a spectrum disorder, meaning some individuals will display more severe symptoms than others.

Aspergers is no longer considered its own diagnosis. The DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) recently categorized these children as diagnosable with basic Autism.

4) Rett Syndrome This syndrome within the Autistic Spectrum Disorder list occurs almost exclusively in girls. The Mayo Clinic says it is, “a rare genetic disorder that affects the way the brain develops”.

Symptoms of Rett syndrome start to appear around or after children reach six months of age. Some of these symptoms are slowed growth, decreases in coordination, communication, and thinking abilities, unusual hand and eye movements, abnormal breathing, irritability, seizures, and strange, unexpected behaviors. Although this is technically a genetic disorder, it displays traits that are largely Autistic in nature.

5) Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD- NOS) An individual is labelled with this when they display certain symptoms of autism, but not enough to be fully diagnosed with it. This is probably the mildest of the disorders that are categorized under Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

Kids with this diagnosis often have the ability to succeed in the world on their own, especially with proper training and help. In fact, many people have this disorder and may never know. Their friends may simply view them as a bit “quirky”.

A spectrum means there is a range of disorders with a range of severities within it. No two disorders will present the same.


What Are The Main Symptoms Of Autistic Spectrum Disorder?

The symptoms of Autistic Spectrum Disorder will vary from child to child, so diagnosis can be difficult. It is a good idea to start tracking behaviour in a diary so a pattern can be established, rather than simply a week or two of bad behaviour.

Symptoms may include:

Communication Problems  Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder often have break-downs in communication. Many of the children with ASDs don’t have natural inflection when they speak. They may sound monotone with lack of expression. You may notice that some children take everything literally. The social nuances of idioms and expressions are difficult for them to understand. They also find it difficult to understand humour.

Sometimes with training and practice, it is possible to teach them how to respond to specific situations and phrases. There are severe cases however, where the child might be completely nonverbal or know only a few words

Social Developmental Delay  One of the most prominent features of Autistic Spectrum Disorder is the inability to socially interact appropriately with others. They often lack the ability to tailor discussions or react to social situations appropriately.

Often this can be noticed even as a baby or toddler with Autistic Spectrum Disorder as they like to keep to themselves rather than join groups like most children naturally do.

Often, they prefer to be alone (or with adults instead of peers), either because it keeps them from becoming overstimluated, or they simply don’t know how to join a group of friends.

A person with Autistic Spectrum Disorder may appear socially clumsy or offensive.

Again with training, social skills can be improved.

Sensory Problems Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder are often sensitive to sensory stimulation. They are often bothered by too much light, too much sound, certain smells, tastes, or textures.

Things that wouldn’t bother the average person can bring someone with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder to annoyance, tears, or tantrums because the stimulation is just more than they can bear. It might be a simple as a clock ticking or the hum of an air conditioner.

Rigidity  Rigidity in both behaviour and thinking is a major characteristic of people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. They have difficulty understanding the concept that sometimes it is OK to break a rule.

Unusual, Repetitive Motor Movements This is common in children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder and is evident by behaviours like arm flapping, rocking their bodies back and forth, or spinning in circles.

Another common behaviour is toe walking, where the child walks on the balls of his feet instead of placing the whole foot on the ground.

This may be due to a dysfunctional vestibular system according to the Autism Research Institute

Obsessions  Obsessions are common in Autistic Spectrum Disorder. The Mayo Clinic lists obsessions as one of the top symptoms of children with Aspergers. The obsessions apply to Classic Autism as well.

The Mayo Clinic describes these as, “Showing an intense obsession with one or two specific, narrow subjects, such as baseball statistics, train schedules, weather or snakes.”

These obsessions go far beyond what you might consider simply  pre-occupation or interest in the latest fad. Children with these obsessions will think about their particular topics of choice nearly non-stop, and will talk about them as much as possible without noticing that their obsessions are driving away peers or annoying adults.

Low Muscle Tone  About 30 percent of children with autism have moderate to severe loss of muscle tone, which can limit their gross and fine motor skills. Sports can be difficult though not impossible. Physical activity is therefore incredibly important for them to develop and maintain some muscle tone.

High Co-Morbidity With Other Disorders People with Autistic Spectrum Disorder often experience more than one disorder at the same time. They may have Tourette’s, ADHD, OCD, seizures, General Anxiety Disorder or learning difficulties.

Do People On The Autistic Spectrum Have An Unusually High IQ?

Despite Holywood’s portrayal of autistic people being prodigies or having extremely high intelligence, more than half of autistic people have an IQ of less than 70. (IQ tests are designed to have an average score of 100. High IQ generally is considered a score above 140).

30% of autistic children never speak more than a few words. Many have a higher rate of bowel disease than the average population and 20% also suffer epilepsy. Over 90% of  autistic children who die prematurely do so due to drowning. The most severely affected kids may never be toilet trained and many struggle with frustrations that lead them to regularly assault both care givers and themselves.

How Is Autistic Spectrum Disorder Diagnosed?

Diagnosing an Autistic Spectrum Disorder isn’t an easy task.

At this point in time, there’s no basic on the spot test. It takes collaboration of parents, paediatricians, daycare care givers/teachers observing and giving input.

Generally, testing doesn’t begin until the child begins to show signs of abnormal development. These may include:

  • Social developmental delay
  • Communication challenges or disinterest in personal interaction
  • Unusual reactions to sensory stimulation
  • Obsessive behaviour
  • High anxiety
  • Rigidity
  • Unusual and repetitive motor movements
  • Low muscle tone and poor coordination
  • Performs activities that could cause self-harm, such as biting or head-banging
  • Doesn’t engage in imitative or make-believe play

The earlier any disorder can be detected, the quicker appropriate treatment can be applied. The best way to detect an Autism Spectrum Disorder, is to take your child in for regular checkups with his or her paediatrician or doctor. Doctors will be able to identify if the child has any developmental delays or unusual behaviour patterns.

If the behaviour or signs are important enough, the child can be a referred to a specialist.

Diagnosis can be difficult as each child will be at a different place on the spectrum. Some children will display only certain symptoms, while other children might seem to display all of them.

If you as a parent have concerns about your child’s development, make sure you talk to your child’s daycare or school teachers and get their opinion.

No two kids will behave or react the same. Even children with the same diagnosis behave differently and even identical twins with the same diagnosis behave differently.

Some children shows signs at birth, others do not show sign until later on.


What Are The Causes Of Autism Spectrum Disorder?

There is no known single cause for autism, there are probably multiple causes of autism but it is generally accepted that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function.

Some people refuse to vaccinate their children because they’ve heard that vaccines cause autism. Other people swear certain foods and dyes cause autism. Still, other people blame environmental factors, genetics, seizures, and viruses.

Genetics  There is no doubt that genetics is closely linked with autism.  As with other neurological disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorder often does run in families.

Prescription drug use during pregnancy Scientists have found that women who use the Epilepsy drug, Valproate, are three times more likely to give birth to a child with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, according to the LA Times, US News Health, and Fox News.

Prenatal Development Disruption  A possible cause of autism is damage to the brain while the child is in the womb (WebMD). They say, “Studies of people with autism have found abnormalities in several regions of the brain, which suggest that autism results from a disruption of early brain development while still developing in the mother’s womb.”

Medical News Today found that persistent high fevers, and having the flu during pregnancy have also indicated a higher probability of having a child with autism. Basically, parts of the brain which are forming prior to birth are in very delicate stages while in the womb. Unfortunately, brain damage is something that’s children can be exposed to during pregnancy, no matter how hard a mother tries to heave a healthy pregnancy.

Seizures in utero might contribute to autism as well. Autism Speaks says that it’s estimated that nearly 1/3 of people on the autistic spectrum have epilepsy.


What Does Not Cause Autism Spectrum Disorder

There are many myths surrounding Autism Spectrum Disorder so we are going to banish one myth for good.  In 1998, a British scientist, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, published a study that presented the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine as causing autism. In response, hoards of people in the United States and Britain suddenly quit getting their children vaccinated. Millions of parents refused to give their children the vaccine, and now in the UK, where only dozens of reports of the measles were reported yearly, thousands of cases are now being reported, which is alarming, considering how contagious the deadly disease is.

It turns out that Wakefield was being paid by a law firm that was planning to sue the vaccine companies. It turned out that Dr Wakefield was paid to falsify patient information. He was stripped of his right to practice medicine. There is no link between vaccines and autism.


How To Treat Autistic Spectrum Disorders

Early intervention is the key here. Working with children on the Autistic Spectrum can be challenging, it’s also full of rewards.

These kids often have a tougher time learning than their peers, but that’s because they see the world in a different way than the rest of us.


The Center for Disease Control and Prevention  lists four types of intervention available for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder:

  • Behaviour and Communication Approaches
  • Dietary Approaches
  • Medication
  • Complementary and Alternative Medicine


If your child has a very mild disorder on the spectrum, they may just need to sit near the front of the room, use a weighted lap pad or have a test read verbally instead of in written form.

Other children may require a different curriculum or special teaching one on one.

Different therapies may be required like occupational therapy, speech therapy, or physical therapy.

There are activities you can do at home to help like moulding clay to strengthen hands, balancing exercises, colouring or practicing reading and speaking with your child.

Also you will observe extreme talent in some kids. You may notice exceptional abilities in visual skills, music and academic skills.

About 40 percent of kids with Autistic Spectrum Disorder have average to above average intellectual abilities

Instead of having intelligence spread across every area, such as social intelligence, physical intelligence, academic intelligence, it seems like all the intelligence has been lumped into one area. The child may lack abilities in certain areas, but in whatever area they are good at, they can be exceptional.


The Autistic Spectrum Disorder diagnosis isn’t a death sentence. It is something you can manage, develop and it can bring you great joy. It is being researched extensively and professionals are getting a  much greater understanding of how to better support individuals with Autistic Spectrum Disorder and ensure they develop skills, abilities and live up to their true potential like everyone else.

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