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Autism: Definition, Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Autism: Definition, Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

by Ghania Ahmad · December 23, 2020

Autism is where a child isn’t necessarily giving you a hard time but having a hard time. Why is it so important to understand?

Because awareness about autism can help you develop a better understanding about the challenges your child is facing.

In this guide, we will have a close look on what autism actually is. We will also probe into various signs and symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

So, let’s get started!


What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term that includes a group of neurodevelopmental disorders.

These disorders have a direct impact on the communication and social interaction of an individual, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Moreover, American Psychiatric often characterize ASD by a set of stereotyped and repetitive patterns of behavior.

autism meaning

We refer to autism as a “developmental disorder” since most of the signs and symptoms usually appear during the first two years of life.

ASD can be diagnosed at any age but mental health experts recommend getting an early diagnosis.

Furthermore, as per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), individuals having ASD mostly have:

  • People with Autism face problems with developing social skills like communication and interaction with people
  • A set of repetitive patterns of behavior as well as restricted interests
  • Symptoms that have a direct impact on the individual’s ability to function properly in different areas of life (like school, work etc.)

What Does Spectrum Mean?

The term “spectrum” in the autism spectrum disorder refers to a wide range of types and severity level of symptoms that people may experience.

Moreover, every individual on the spectrum has a unique set of pattern when it comes to behavior and the severity level of symptoms which usually ranges from low functioning to high functioning.


Signs and Symptoms of Autism

The signs and symptoms of people with ASD spectrum disorder are divided into two categories.

Mostly, they are either related to the problems in social interaction and communication or behavioral patterns.

autism signs

At What Age Do The Signs of Autism Start To Show?

In some children, the signs start showing during early infancy or early childhood.

While, other children undergo the normal process of development for the first few months or even the first few years and then suddenly the signs start showing up.

Although, in most of the cases, signs appear by 2 years of age.

What Are The Common Signs of Autism?

Moreover, some of the most common signs are listed below.

Social Communication and Interaction

Following are the signs related to social interaction and communication. A child or adult with ASD may:

  • fail to respond to his/her name (initially, it might appear as if he/she can’t hear you)
  • prefer playing or spending time alone (with very little or no interaction with siblings or peers)
  • have poor eye contact (which means that he/she would mostly avoid looking into your eyes or may have a fleeting eye contact)
  • lack facial expression
  • have absence of speech or a delayed speech
  • speak with an unusual rhythm (which may sound like robotic speech or singsong voice)
  • have hard time communicating their needs
  • difficulty in initiating or participating in a conversation
  • repeat words or phrases after you or other sounds
  • face difficulty in understanding simple directions or questions
  • lack emotional expression and the ability to understand other’s expressions/feelings
  • approach inappropriately to a social interaction by being aggressive, passive or disruptive

Patterns of Behavior

An adult or a child with ASD may have a set pattern of behavior that is repetitive and limited in nature.

Moreover, the signs based on the behavioral patterns include:

  • repetitive movements (like hand flapping, spinning and rocking)
  • behaviors causing self-harm (such as head-banging or biting)
  • having specific and fixed routines and getting disturbed at even the slightest changes
  • disturbed coordination and patterns of movement (like toe-walking, clumsiness and a stiff posture)
  • fascination for spinning objects (like wheels of toy cars or moving fans)
  • having unusual sensitivity towards certain stimuli like light, sound, smell, taste and touch
  • difficulty in imitating any action or sound
  • Obsession with certain objects or people
  • having strong preferences for food

Furthermore, every individual with autism spectrum disorder has a different set of signs and symptoms and they may vary with age and interventions.


Causes of Autism

The exact cause of autism is still not known.

Though, some of the researches support that both genetics and environmental factors may play a significant role in the development of autism.

risk factor ASD

Risk Factors for Autism

Some of the risk factors that are suspected to cause autism include:

  • having a family history of autism (most preferably an immediate family member with ASD)
  • mutation in genetics
  • having very low weight at birth
  • a long history of viral infections
  • certain genetic disorders (such as fragile X syndrome)
  • intake of certain medications like thalidomide or valporic acid by mother during pregnancy
  • being born to older parents
  • exposure to certain kind of environmental toxins
  • metabolic imbalances

However, various resources have confirmed that vaccines are not the cause of ASD.


Diagnosis of Autism

The earlier the diagnosis, the easier the management. Therefore, it’s important to go for an early diagnosis.

Furthermore, different tools are used for the purpose of diagnosis in children and adults.

Let’s look deeply into the diagnosis of ASD!

diagnosis of autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis in Children

Who Can Diagnose ASD in Children?

The experts and professionals who can make a diagnosis for ASD in children include:

  • Developmental pediatrician
  • Pediatric neurologist
  • Neuropsychologist
  • Child psychiatrist/psychologist

What Are The Diagnostic Tools For Children?

In order to make a diagnosis for autism spectrum disorder, various tools can be used.

Moreover, these tools include different genetic tests, screenings and evaluations.

Screenings and Tests

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests that all the children must undergo screening for autism spectrum disorder at 18 and 24 months of age.

Furthermore, screening can help identifying the symptoms at an early age. As a result, you can plan an early intervention for your child.

The most common screenings and tests include:

  • DNA testing (for the purpose of identification of genetic diseases)
  • Audio and visual tests (for the purpose of ruling out issues with hearing and vision)
  • Behavioral evaluation
  • Developmental screenings such as Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT)
  • Occupational therapy screening
  • Developmental questionnaires such as Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS)

Comprehensive Behavioral Evaluation

The next step is a detailed neurological and physical examination.

This may also include a team of experts. Generally, the team involves:

  • Child psychologists
  • Developmental pediatricians
  • Child neurologists
  • Behavioral therapists
  • Speech and language pathologists
  • Occupational therapists

Moreover, comprehensive behavioral evaluation also include tools for screening.

However, usually a combination of various tools is necessary in order to make a diagnosis for ASD.

Some of the screening tools for behavioral assessment include:

  • Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS)
  • Ages and Stages Questionnaires (ASQ)
  • Autism Spectrum Rating Scales (ASRS)
  • Screening Tool for Autism in Toddlers and Young Children (STAT)
  • Autism Diagnostic Interview — Revised (ADI-R)
  • Gilliam Autism Rating Scale
  • Social Communication Questionnaire

Genetic Testing

Some of the laboratories have tests for the biomarkers which may indicate ASD.

Furthermore, if these genetic tests show an atypical result, it simply means that genetics probably have a role in ASD.

However, if the tests show a typical result, it helps to rule out the contribution of genes. It also means that the cause is still unknown.

Therefore, in most of the cases, people don’t find useful answers.

Diagnosis in Adults

It is more difficult to diagnose autism spectrum disorder in adults than children.

Moreover, in adults the symptoms of ASD might overlap with the symptoms of other mental disorders.

Who Can Diagnose ASD in Adults?

Adults can seek professional help from:

  • Neuropsychologist
  • Psychiatrist
  • Psychologist

Therefore, you must consult these professionals if you are facing challenges regarding social communication and interaction, restricted interests, sensory issues or repetitive behaviors.

Moreover, getting a proper diagnosis can help you understand your past difficulties, identifying your strengths as well as seeking the right kind of help.


Treatment of Autism

There is no cure for autism but it can be managed to a great extent with proper treatment and therapies.

Moreover, early intervention can provide your child the help he/she needs.

Eventually, your child would be able to make the most of his/her strengths.

treatment of autism

The treatment program for autism usually includes a combination of medication and therapies.


Some of the symptoms of ASD can be treated through medication.

A psychiatrist can prescribe medication according to the needs of the client.

Furthermore, medication can help an individual with the symptoms like:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Irritability
  • Attention problems
  • Aggression
  • Anxiety and depression


What is The Purpose of Therapies?

Therapies can help an individual:

  • Learning the life-skills required to live independently
  • Building upon the strengths
  • Reducing behaviors that are challenging
  • Developing communication, social and language skills

What are The Types of Therapies?

Moreover, there are are three types of therapies that can help an individual with ASD:

  • Behavioral therapy (which focuses on improving attention span, command following, eye contact and waiting time)
  • Speech therapy (which helps in the proper articulation of words and phrases)
  • Occupational therapy (that helps a child learning the life-skills and resolving sensory issues)

Other Resources

Furthermore, some of the tips in order to find the additional services include:

  • Contact an autism advocacy group to learn about the local resources and the available programs.
  • Look for autism support groups. Sharing experiences and information can be really helpful.
  • Ask your health care providers if you can record meetings and conversations to benefit from it later on.
  • Moreover, keep copies of all the relevant evaluations and reports. This information can be useful in qualifying for special programs.
Ghania Ahmad

I am a Psychology graduate and I run a small home-based setup for children on spectrum. I love making content. In the past, I've worked as a Marketing Communications Manager at Acme Business services. Prior to this, I have also served IGI Life Vitality as a Senior Executive Consultant.

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