Autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are terms for a group of developmental disorders that cause problems with communication, social skills, and behavior. Some children show signs of these impairments from birth. Others appear to be developing normally and then regress in their social and communication skills around 2-3 years of age. Symptoms may improve somewhat, especially with treatment, but this is a disorder that persists throughout life.
Researchers have found that the brain development of children with autism differs from that of normal children, though there is likely no single cause for this. It is suspected that genetic factors put a child at risk for autism, and non-genetic factors in the environment also influence this abnormal brain development.
Symptoms of ASD
The severity of ASD symptoms varies from child to child. Children with ASD may have intellectual disabilities, decreased motor coordination, or health problems like gastrointestinal issues or difficulty sleeping, in addition to the communication, social and behavioral symptoms below:
- Limited speech/language development, or loss of words previously used
- Problems following directions or understanding questions
- Difficulty expressing needs and wants
- Abnormal pitch or intonation patterns of speech
- Repeating what is said to them (echolalia) or repetitive use of certain words/phrases
- Decreased eye contact, smiling or other social responses
- Intense focus on a limited set of interests
- Lack of normal play skills
- Difficulty making friends
- Display emotions inappropriate to the context
- Dislike being touched or held
- Trouble understanding others’ feelings
- Resistant to changes in routine
- Repetitive behaviors/actions
- Over- or under-sensitive to sensory stimuli (e.g., sounds, lights, touch)
Assessing and Treating ASD
Early identification and treatment are very important with autism spectrum disorders. If there are concerns about a child’s development, the first step is to consult with a doctor. If the doctor suspects ASD, he can refer the child for a more thorough evaluation by a team of professionals that may include a psychologist, neurologist, occupational therapist, or others. The Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) is an important part of this team because so many ASD symptoms are related to communication and social skills. The SLP may complete speech, language, and cognitive testing as well as behavioral observations and a hearing screen. She will also interview parents to gain a complete history and information about the child’s communication, social skills, and behavior.
The SLP’s treatment plan often includes very structured and intensive behavioral therapy methods in addition to more traditional treatment of speech/language and social skills. She will also educate families about the disorder, how best to communicate with the child, and how to manage behavior issues. Doctors may prescribe medications for certain autism-related symptoms.