Autism Spectrum Disorders
A Parent’s Guide to Symptoms and Diagnosis on the Autism Spectrum
Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that there is a wide degree of variation in the way it affects people. Every child on the autism spectrum has unique abilities, symptoms, and challenges. Learning about the different autism spectrum disorders will help you better understand your own child, get a handle on what all the different autism terms mean, and make it easier to communicate with the doctors, teachers, and therapists helping your child.
Understanding autism spectrum disorders
Autism is not a single disorder, but a spectrum of closely related disorders with a shared core of symptoms. Every individual on the autism spectrum has problems to some degree with social interaction, empathy, communication, and flexible behavior. But the level of disability and the combination of symptoms varies tremendously from person to person. In fact, two kids with the same diagnosis may look very different when it comes to their behaviors and abilities.
If you’re a parent dealing with a child on the autism spectrum, you may hear many different terms including high-functioning autism, atypical autism, autism spectrum disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder. These terms can be confusing, not only because there are so many, but because doctors, therapists, and other parents may use them in dissimilar ways.
But no matter what doctors, teachers, and other specialists call the autism spectrum disorder, it’s your child’s unique needs that are truly important. No diagnostic label can tell you exactly what challenges your child will have. Finding treatment that addresses your child’s needs, rather than focusing on what to call the problem, is the most helpful thing you can do. You don’t need a diagnosis to start getting help for your child’s symptoms.
Keep in mind that just because your child has a few autism-like symptoms, it doesn’t mean he or she has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism Spectrum Disorder is diagnosed based on the presence of multiple symptoms that disrupt a person’s ability to communicate, form relationships, explore, play, and learn. (Note: In the DSM-5, the latest version of the diagnostic “Bible” used by mental health professionals and insurers, deficits in social interaction and communication are lumped together in one category. We present problems with social skills separately from problems with speech and language, to make it easier for parents to quickly identify symptoms.)
Social behavior and social understanding
Basic social interaction can be difficult for children with autism spectrum disorders. Symptoms may include:
Speech and language
Many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder struggle with speech and language comprehension. Symptoms may include:
Restricted behavior and play
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder are often restricted, rigid, and even obsessive in their behaviors, activities, and interests. Symptoms may include:
How children with Autism Spectrum Disorder play
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder tend to be less spontaneous than other kids. Unlike a typical curious little kid pointing to things that catch his or her eye, children with ASD often appear disinterested or unaware of what's going on around them. They also show differences in the way they play. They may have trouble with functional play, or using toys that have a basic intended use, such as toy tools or cooking set. They usually don't "play make-believe," engage in group games, imitate others, collaborate, or use their toys in creative ways.
Related signs and symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder
While not part of autism’s official diagnostic criteria, children with autism spectrum disorders often suffer from one or more of the following problems:
Sensory problems – Many children with autism spectrum disorders either underreact or overreact to sensory stimuli. At times they may ignore people speaking to them, even to the point of appearing deaf. However, at other times they may be disturbed by even the softest sounds. Sudden noises such as a ringing telephone can be upsetting, and they may respond by covering their ears and making repetitive noises to drown out the offending sound. Children on the autism spectrum also tend to be highly sensitive to touch and to texture. They may cringe at a pat on the back or the feel of certain fabric against their skin.
Emotional difficulties – Children with autism spectrum disorders may have difficulty regulating their emotions or expressing them appropriately. For instance, your child may start to yell, cry, or laugh hysterically for no apparent reason. When stressed, he or she may exhibit disruptive or even aggressive behavior (breaking things, hitting others, or harming him or herself). The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities also notes that kids with ASD may be unfazed by real dangers like moving vehicles or heights, yet be terrified of harmless objects such as a stuffed animal.
Uneven cognitive abilities – ASD occurs at all intelligence levels. However, even kids with normal to high intelligence often have unevenly developed cognitive skills. Not surprisingly, verbal skills tend to be weaker than nonverbal skills. In addition, children with Autism spectrum disorder typically do well on tasks involving immediate memory or visual skills, while tasks involving symbolic or abstract thinking are more difficult.
Getting an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis
The road to an ASD diagnosis can be difficult and time-consuming. In fact, it is often two to three years after the first symptoms of ASD are noticed before an official diagnosis is made. This is due in large part to concerns about labeling or incorrectly diagnosing the child. However, an ASD diagnosis can also be delayed if the doctor doesn’t take a parent’s concerns seriously or if the family isn’t referred to health care professionals who specialize in developmental disorders.
If you’re worried that your child has ASD, it’s important to seek out a clinical diagnosis. But don’t wait for that diagnosis to get your child into treatment. Early intervention during the preschool years will improve your child’s chances for overcoming his or her developmental delays. So look into treatment options and try not to worry if you’re still waiting on a definitive diagnosis. Putting a potential label on your kid’s problem is far less important than treating the symptoms.
Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder
In order to determine whether your child has autism spectrum disorder or another developmental condition, clinicians look carefully at the way your child interacts with others, communicates, and behaves. Diagnosis is based on the patterns of behavior that are revealed.
If you are concerned that your child has autism spectrum disorder and developmental screening confirms the risk, ask your family doctor or pediatrician to refer you immediately to an autism specialist or team of specialists for a comprehensive evaluation. Since the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder is complicated, it is essential that you meet with experts who have training and experience in this highly specialized area.
The team of specialists involved in diagnosing your child may include:
- Child psychologists
- Child psychiatrists
- Speech pathologists
- Developmental pediatricians
- Pediatric neurologists
- Physical therapists
- Special education teachers
Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder is not a brief process. There is no single medical test that can diagnose it definitively; instead, in order to accurately pinpoint your child's problem, multiple evaluations and tests may be necessary.
Getting evaluated for Autism Spectrum Disorder
Depending on your child's and symptoms and their severity, the diagnostic assessment may also include speech, intelligence, social, sensory processing, and motor skills testing. These tests can be helpful not only in diagnosing autism, but also for determining what type of treatment your child needs:
Speech and language evaluation – A speech pathologist will evaluate your child's speech and communication abilities for signs of autism, as well as looking for any indicators of specific language impairments or disorders.
Cognitive testing – Your child may be given a standardized intelligence test or an informal cognitive assessment.
Adaptive functioning assessment – Your child may be evaluated for her/his ability to function, problem-solve, and adapt in real-life situations. This may include testing social, nonverbal, and verbal skills, as well as the ability to perform daily tasks such as dressing and feeding him or herself.
Sensory-motor evaluation – Since sensory integration dysfunction often co-occurs with autism, and can even be confused with it, a physical therapist or occupational therapist may assess your child's fine motor, gross motor, and sensory processing skills.
Resources and references
Autism Spectrum Disorders – What should you know? Autism spectrum disorders homepage. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Autism Navigator – Guide to the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of autism spectrum disorders. (Center for Parent Information and Resources)
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? – Read about the symptoms and red flags of ASD in children, teens, and adults. (vKool.com)
DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria – Review the latest diagnostic criteria used by psychiatrists and psychologists when evaluating for autism spectrum disorder. (Autism Speaks)
Screening and Diagnosis – A guide to the developmental screening and comprehensive diagnostic evaluation used to diagnosis autism spectrum disorder. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Asperger’s Syndrome – Guide to the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome, diagnosis, educational issues, and what the disorder looks like in adults. (Autism Society of America)
Asperger Syndrome – Guide to the signs, symptoms, causes, and treatment of Asperger’s syndrome. (Kid’s Health)
Pervasive Developmental Disorders Information Page – Jumping off point to a wealth of resources on Pervasive Developmental Disorder. (NINDS)
Dyslexia Diagnosis & Treatment By Mayo Clinic Staff
Childhood apraxia of speech by Mayo Clinic Staff
What Are Some of the Causes of Aggression in Children? By Raul Silva, MD
How to Calm a Child with Autism By Lisa Jo Rudy
How Autistic Meltdowns Differ from Ordinary Temper Tantrums By Lisa Jo Rudy
5 Simple Ways to Make Life Easier for Your Sensitive Kid By Lindsey Biel
Understanding Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Children By Keath Low
Sensory Integration by Autism Research Institute www.autism.com
ADHD or Autism? By WebMD