What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): All We Need to Know about the Condition

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? What symptoms do we look out for? With every 1 in 54 children diagnosed with ASD, what do we need to know about the condition?

Defining Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is described as a neurodevelopmental condition, impeding social and cognitive growth. The word “spectrum” is used to imply the range of symptoms that may present themselves in different individual.
The disorder has been divided into types or stages, depending on the severity of the condition. With the new findings registered in the DSM-5, what previously were categorizations of their own- i.e. Asperger’s Syndrome, childhood cognitive disorder and PDD-NOS- are now interpreted as distinctive degrees of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
There is not a lot of definitive information on what causes Autism, but it is believed that genetic and environmental factors are involved.

Types of Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder was identified as a range of related conditions, until their consolidation in the fifth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Recognizing the similarities between the conditions, they are now classified as different intensities of autism.
High Functioning Autism
This is a milder form of autism, where symptoms are not as extreme and thus the individual is still able to live a relatively normal life. Those with high functioning autism may have to endure problem behaviors in social situations and may exhibit unusual interests, but do not have language deficits or intellectual disabilities.
Alternate terms no longer in prevalent use: Asperger’s Syndrome, Level 1 on the spectrum
Broad Autism Phenotype
More severe than the former, this type of autism poses slight language and social difficulties, with some aspects of personality aligning with autistic characteristics.
Alternate terms no longer in prevalent use: Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), Level 2 on the spectrum
Severe Autism
The most intense on the spectrum, individuals with severe autism may require help with daily functioning. It is usually defined by linguistic challenges, social struggles, intellectual disability, and atypical mannerisms and interests.
Alternate terms no longer in prevalent use: Classic Autism/ Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Level 3 on the spectrum

How Can We Detect Autism

While the signs and symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder may vary from person to person, there are certain red flags one can look out for. Moreover, autistic children may not follow the growth pattern of typically-developing children, or may meet developmental milestones only to lose them later on.
Detecting autism at a younger age can result in early intervention, which improves chances for long-term positive impact on symptoms, and eventually functioning skills.
It is best to consult a specialist if you observe any of the following behaviors in your child:
• Does not smile by six months old
• Cannot imitate facial expressions or sounds by the age of 9 months
Does not respond to their name, nor babbles or coos by their first birthday
• Does not gesture toward objects to depict interest by 14 months of age
• Does not play “pretend” or “make believe” by the age of 18 months
• Avoids eye contact, and prefers isolation
• Has trouble empathizing with others, or even processing their own feelings
• Undergoes speech delays and learning difficulties, reflected in the inability to speak single words by 16 months old or phrases by 2 years of age
• Repeats certain words and phrases without a complete understanding of their meanings (echolalia)
• Repeats actions and movements, like the flapping of hands, spinning in circles, or rocking their bodies
• Has obsessive, fixative interests, so much so that even a minute change may trigger tantrums
• Does not respond to parents’ or caregivers’ shifts in expression
• Gets uncommonly upset if they dislike a certain taste, sound or smell
• Does not talk as much as other children of the same age do
Rejects physical contact, even if it is an attempt to console them


Is Autism Different for Females?

Autism may manifest differently in females, as compared to males. It is largely believed that the disorder impacted more boys than it did girls, with statistics highlighting a 4% difference. However, recent discoveries suggest that autistic girls may have not received proper diagnoses at all; for their symptoms are far subtle and socially acceptable, compared to those observed in boys. Though they may share similar indicators of ASD as babies and toddlers, there are a few variations that must be addressed.
For instance, they may exhibit obsessive traits differently than males do. While boys with an interest in automobiles may be familiar with a lot of relevant trivia, including lesser known information, or would be attracted to minor details, like tires on toy cars; girls may be seen dressing their dolls or organizing their toys in a specific manner.
They may also be extremely shy, or excessively passive. Though, since such characteristics are normatively associated with females, they are typically overlooked and unacknowledged as symptoms.
In addition, they may be very good at imitating socially accepted behaviors. This keeps them from an accurate prognosis, until they may come across a situation they have as yet been unable to copy.


Treatment for Autism

Instead of handling it like a debilitating disease, as it once was viewed, autism is now taken as an obstacle to overcome. With campaigns and initiatives like Autism Awareness Day and Dubai’s “My community…A city for everyone”, the condition has become more of a difference in lifestyle than a disabling disorder. Consequently, the aim is now not to separate persons of determination in an institution, but to integrate them with the rest of society as valued individuals.
Keeping such visions their primary objective, inclusion centers like Small Steps Big Dreams in Dubai, UAE, employ a variety of methods to assist autistic students. Though these approaches do not guarantee a reversal of the condition, they do propose the reduction of symptoms and thus an increase in abilities. Techniques to aid autistic individuals include, but are not limited to:
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy
Occupational therapy
Medication treatment
Physical therapy
Social skills training
Speech-language therapy


Differently-Abled, Not Disabled

Advances in research and launching of awareness campaigns have shed new light on the disorder. Despite it being gradual, the social stigma surrounding Autism Spectrum Disorder is in fact wearing off. The causes of the disorder are unclear, and no real cure has been discovered yet. Additionally, autism may pose many challenges to day-to-day functionality, depending on its severity. However, this has encouraged an adaptation to the condition, instead concentrating on enhancing functionality with the help of autism therapy and inclusion techniques.