What Is the Autism Spectrum?


Mary Elizabeth Dallas

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) isn’t just one condition. It’s a term to describe a group of disorders affecting a child's development. As the word "spectrum" indicates, autism disorders range from mild to severe.

ASD affects a child’s:

  • Ability to communicate
  • Behavior
  • Social skills

Signs and Symptoms of ASD

The effects of ASD differ from child to child. Some children have only minor issues. Others are severely disabled.

Symptoms usually start before children are 2 years old. Doctors diagnose ASD in young children who have problems with development and behavior with no other explanation.

Warning signs a young child may be affected by ASD include:

  • Not showing an interest in objects by pointing to them
  • Not looking at objects others are pointing to
  • Not being interested in other people
  • Not making eye contact
  • Wanting to be alone
  • Having trouble making friends and sharing
  • Having trouble understanding how others are feeling
  • Avoiding physical contact or hugs
  • Not responding when others speak
  • Becoming upset when hearing some sounds
  • Repeating words or phrases the child hears others say
  • Repeating certain actions
  • Having trouble with changes in their routine

ASD seems to be more common in the United States than it used to be. Today, the condition affects roughly 1 in 68 children. However, experts aren't sure if this is solely because more people have ASD. It also could be because more parents and doctors are aware of the condition, so more children and adults have been identified as having ASD.

Causes and Risk Factors for ASD

It’s not clear what causes ASD. Doctors believe many factors increase the risk for the condition. Environment and genetics likely play roles. Boys are also at greater risk for ASD than girls.

There is currently no cure for ASD. Some people may seem gifted and need little assistance. Others face serious challenges and need significant help to function day to day.

Conditions That Fall Under ASD

Four conditions that used to be separate diagnoses now fall under the umbrella of ASD. The change helps ensure a more accurate and reliable diagnosis.

Asperger syndrome

Asperger syndrome (Asperger’s) applies mainly to children with social issues. Most people with Asperger’s have no problems with speech during early childhood. Some kids with Asperger’s have very specific and intense interests. They may be fascinated with a particular subject. Some people with Asperger’s are gifted or have remarkable talents in a certain area. They may be less involved in a wide range of interests compared to other people of the same age. This can make them seem socially awkward.

Other signs of Asperger’s include:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Not understanding nonverbal cues like a smile or a frown
  • Not seeing things from another’s perspective
  • Talking only about oneself

The disorder affects up to four times more boys than girls. It's not clear how common it is. Estimates range from 1 of every 250 children to 1 of 5,000.

People with Asperger’s are high functioning. Many children don't get a diagnosis until they are in middle school. Those with mild forms of the disorder may never be diagnosed.

Autistic disorder

Autistic disorder (Kanner's syndrome) affects about 1 in 1,000 children. Kids with this type of autism have at least six symptoms affecting these key areas:

  • Ability to communicate
  • Interaction with others
  • Interests or behavior

Often, children with autistic disorder don't want to be social. They may have a lot of trouble communicating. They may learn to speak later than usual.

Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)

PDD-NOS affects about 3 of every 1,000 children. Children with PDD-NOS may have trouble with social skills but not with language or behavior.

They usually fall into one of these groups:

  • Those who have mild symptoms of autism
  • Those who do not meet all of the criteria for an autistic disorder
  • Those with some Asperger’s symptoms as well as a language delay

Childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD)

CDD is very rare. CDD affects an estimated 2 of every 100,000 children.

Autism is usually diagnosed before the age of 3, but children with CDD don't usually get a diagnosis until they're 4 to 10 years old.

These children develop normally for at least the first two years of life. Then, they lose the skills they’ve gained. That includes the ability to speak. CDD can also affect the use of certain muscles and social skills. Some children with CDD also have seizures.

Early treatment

In some cases, ASD can be diagnosed as early as age 2. It’s important to talk to your doctor right away if you think your child has symptoms of the condition. That lets the child start therapy as early as possible. Treating ASD early on can dramatically improve a child’s development.

There are many treatment options that may help, including:

  • Medication
  • Music therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Sensory integration
  • Speech therapy

Other programs and services can help children interact with others.