Autism Spectrum Conditions
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) comprise a range of neurodevelopmental disorders that are characterized by social communication and social interaction difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. The way in which these difficulties are presented can vary considerably from person to person.
Social Communication Difficulties
People with ASDs often do not initiate or respond to social interaction in a typical way. They may fail to grasp the expected back and forth rhythm in conversation, not speaking when expected to or continuing to speak long after a listener has lost interest. Understanding nonverbal social cues such as facial expressions and body language can be difficult. Eye contact can be very uncomfortable. Early language development is often delayed, and people with ASDs may use language in overly literal ways.
The abilities to engage emotionally with other people, understand what others may be feeling, and express personal feelings are not developed as automatically as they are in people without ASDs. All of this can adversely affect potential friendships and other relationships. Many people with ASDs desire friendships but do not understand how to establish or maintain them. Others are more comfortable with solitude.
Stereotyped Patterns of Behavior, Interests, and Activities
People with ASDs may display unusual behaviors that range from repetitive hand or body movements to atypical use of toys and other objects to stereotyped and repetitive speech. A need for sameness in day to day activities is very common, and it can be extremely distressing when established routines are broken. A person’s interests may be quite intense and seemingly unusual, and the person may learn a tremendous amount of information about a topic of interest.
In addition to these areas of difficulty, people with ASDs often have seemingly unusual reactions to or cravings for sensory input. For example, handshakes may be intolerable, while deep pressure squeezes are desired. A person may seem unusually fascinated or bothered by smells, lights, visual movement, or touch sensations.
All of this can lead to great frustration and anxiety for a person with an ASD who is attempting to interface with the non autistic or “neurotypical” world. Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety disorders, and even thoughts of suicide may need to be treated, as they would for any person.
With the 2013 publication of DSM-V, the diagnostic manual used when evaluating developmental disorders, the broad diagnosis Autism Spectrum Disorder took the place of several more specific diagnoses. People previously diagnosed with Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder (or Asperger’s Syndrome), Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, or Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified are all considered to have an Autism Spectrum Disorder under DSM-V. This change was bothersome to many who had previously been diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder in particular, as it felt like a part of their identity or self-understanding was being taken away. Most professionals and people with ASDs are happy for people with Asperger’s to continue using and identifying with that term.
Possible Causes of ASDs:
Scientists aren’t certain about what causes ASDs, but it’s likely that both genetics and environment play a role. Researchers have identified a number of genes associated with the disorder. Other studies have found biochemical and structural irregularities in various regions of the autistic brain. While such findings are intriguing, they are preliminary and require a great deal of further study. The theory that parental practices are responsible for ASDs has long been disproven. Also, while the cultural phenomenon of attributing autism to childhood vaccinations persists, there is no credible evidence to support such a connection.
Treatments for ASDs:
There is no single best treatment for all children and adults with ASDs. However, well-planned, structured teaching of specific skills is very important. Some people respond well to one type of treatment, while others may have a negative response or no response at all to the same treatment.
Therapists use highly structured and intensive skill-oriented training sessions to help children develop social and language skills, such as Applied Behavioral Analysis. Family counseling for the parents and siblings of children with an ASD often helps families cope with the particular challenges of living with a child with an ASD.
Doctors may prescribe medications for treatment of specific autism-related symptoms, such as inattention, impulsivity, sleep problems, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or severe behavior problems.
Understanding and Acceptance of Neurodiversity
Neurodiversity means neurological differences among people. Accepting and valuing neurodiversity is to understand that people with conditions such as autism have equal personhood and worth to those without, while acknowledging the fact that autism can cause disabilities. This concept is very well summarized in the Scientific American article linked below: