Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that encompasses a wide range of severity. Some kids are only mildly affected while others experience significant challenges in every aspect of their lives. Whatever the severity of your child’s condition, however, he will display some behaviors and mannerisms that are different than those of typical kids.
Autism Spectrum Disorders
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, has long been considered the definitive resource for mental health professionals seeking to diagnose clients. The fourth edition, or DSM-IV, recognized four separate disorders along the autism spectrum: Asperger’s syndrome, autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive development disorder not otherwise specified. In May 2013, the DSM-V replaced the DSM-IV. The new edition groups the disorders together under a single diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder or ASD. Many mental health experts dispute this change, and you might hear several terms used interchangeably by your child’s doctor and members of the autism community. If you are unclear about the terms used to describe your child, never hesitate to ask for clarification.
Signs and Symptoms
Autism disorders generally manifest by age 3, although some people are not diagnosed until much later. While severe autism is often associated with cognitive impairment, those with high-functioning autism or the previous diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome tend to have above average or even genius-level intelligence. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that parents pay attention to children’s interactions with other people and the world around them. Regardless of severity, the condition is hallmarked by difficulties in social skills and communication. While typical kids almost instinctively understand how to play with other children, and show spontaneous empathy when they see someone in trouble, autistic children must be taught these skills. They tend to speak in stilted language, run on about their areas of special interest even when their audience is bored, or react inappropriately -- by showing little emotion or even walking away -- to others' distress. In addition, children with autism often display rigid adherence to routines and preoccupation with a limited range of activities. By contrast, typical kids are naturally curious about many different things and are easily redirected to new activities. Many autistic children lag behind their peers in developing motor skills and may show unusual posture, walking gait or mannerisms. While typical kids climb on jungle gyms, play sports and enjoy games such as hopscotch and four square, autistic children seem to trip over their own feet and often have trouble catching a ball. If anything about your child’s behavior seems off or unusual, bring it to the attention of your child’s doctor.
All children are generally screened for autism and other developmental disorders at well-child doctor visits in early childhood. For most kids, a quick once-over and a few questions about how the child compares to others are all that are needed. If you or your doctor suspect autism, however, your child might be scheduled for a special appointment. Unlike many conditions, there is no medical test for autism. Instead, autism is officially diagnosed based on the clinician’s observations of the child, as well as parent and teacher reports on a variety of evaluative questionnaires and checklists. An official diagnosis is often made by a team of experts from a range of disciplines including a medical doctor, a psychologist, a speech therapist and an occupational therapist. This group of experts will become the basis of your child’s treatment team, who will work together to help the child overcome her difficulties and lead a successful life. Unlike typical children, autistic children need special guidance and skills training in a wide variety of areas.
Minimize Symptoms or Celebrate Differences?
In general, the medical and psychological communities view autism as a disorder, and seek to treat its symptoms. Increasingly, however, people with autism are choosing to see it as a difference to be celebrated rather than removed. Events such as World Autism Awareness Day and online communities such as WrongPlanet.net encourage those with autism and their families to learn as much as possible about the condition and choose the solutions that work for them. Empower your child by sharing age-appropriate information about her disorder and focus on solving the problems of daily living rather than trying to remake her into a completely different person.