Google the word “autism” and you can find many definitions. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V) from the American Psychiatric Association, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological condition. It is identified by persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across contexts, not accounted for by general developmental delays, and manifest by specific characteristics.
Who Does ASD Affect?
- ASD can occur in children regardless of ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic status
- Rates of autism are significantly higher in the United States than in other developed countries
- The United States has seen a steep increase in ASD diagnoses since 2003
- The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that in the U.S., an average of 1 in 45 children will have ASD
- Autism in children is more likely to be boys
ASD is a Neurological Disorder
Research continues to investigate why the rate of autism is increasing. Ongoing research looks at everything from environmental factors to genetics but the cause of autism is still unknown. What is known, however, is that ASD is a neurological disorder that, when treated in early childhood with ABA therapy, can significantly decrease in its presentation of characteristics.
Some studies have shown the loss of an autism diagnosis after intensive ABA treatment from 18 months to five years of age. While not all children will respond that positively to ABA treatment, all children who receive legitimate professional ABA treatment will have decreased ASD characteristics.
Signs, Symptoms, & Characteristics of ASD
ASD can be noticed in infants as early as 8-10 months. At-risk infants may exhibit characteristics such as not recognizing their name when called, delayed ‘talking’ or babbling, and not showing interest in people. The characteristics of ASD are likely to become more pronounced as a child gets older. Some characteristics may not be noticeable until a child is at least 2 years old.
ASD Characteristics in Toddlers
ASD characteristics in toddlers may include a preference to play alone, difficulty engaging with other children, and a failure to imitate the actions of others. There are some children with ASD who appear to be developing at a normal rate, but around 18-24 months of age they are no longer gaining new skills and may start to lose skills they already developed. Studies have shown that approximately 80-90% of parents noticed characteristics of ASD by the time their child was two years old.
Common Characteristics of Children with ASD
While some children who do not have ASD may also experience these characteristics, many are common to an autism diagnosis.
- Avoiding eye contact
- Becoming upset with small changes
- Delayed language
- Difficulty playing with peers
- Difficulty connecting with others
- Social skills are limited to parents
- Having obsessive interests
- Showing unusual reactions to the sound, smell, look, feel, or taste of things
- Unusual eating habits
- Aggressive behavior
- Lack of fear
- Frequent temper tantrums
- Sleep disturbances
Unusual Interests and Behaviors in Children with ASD
Children with ASD typically have unusual interests or behaviors which may include:
- Becoming very upset by a minor change
- Being extremely organized
- Consistently playing with toys in a perfectionistic manner
- Flapping their hands, rocking their body, or spinning in a circle
- Having obsessive interests
- Compulsively organizing toys or other objects
- Needing to follow certain routines
The Importance of ASD Routines
When a child has ASD, they usually are most successful when they have consistent routines. A change to their normal routine can cause them to become very upset. Some children may have certain routines that come across as being unnecessary or unusual, but if they are unable to follow the routine it can cause them to feel frustrated, leading to anger or tantrums.
ASD & Social Skills
Social skills are one of the most noticeable skill differences in children with autism. It is common for parents to detect this characteristic first because as humans we are social by nature. When a child does not see social interactions as reinforcing, it may be an indicator that they may have ASD. This doesn’t mean children with autism do not value their relationships; it means they do not understand them. The sooner a child with autism is taught the reinforcing qualities of social interaction, the better their long-term outcome will be.
Social Skills of Children with Autism
Children with autism will display their level of understanding social interactions in different ways. Younger children with autism will commonly avoid eye contact, fail to babble or point, not respond to language, have a preference of playing alone, and will not engage in pretend play. However, not all children with autism show a severe lack of social skills. Some children with autism show a great interest in social relationships, but may not understand how to engage in them.
Honing Social Skills of Children with Autism
As children with autism get older, it is challenging for them to understand the emotions or perceptions of other people. These social skills always have to be taught to enable the person with autism to fully understand their social world. With treatment, children with autism are able to learn how to express their own feelings and engage with others. Without treatment, people with autism often feel very isolated which can lead to anxiety or depression in their adolescent years.
ASD & Communication
Children with autism have delays in their ability to communicate but, as with all characteristics, these delays vary. These characteristics can range in severity with characteristics including the inability to produce language to the late onset of speech from two to four years of age. If your child is not using language or has limited language, it is incredibly important to get an autism screening as early as possible.
ABA Therapy and Communication
ABA therapy is the only evidence-based treatment for communication deficits in children with autism. ABA therapists assess WHY language is not occurring, then create a tailored treatment plan to increase communication. Until a family has worked intensively with an ABA team and speech therapy specialist, they should not rule out their child’s ability to speak.
How do People with ASD Communicate?
ABA therapy focuses on communication development using:
- Exchanging pictures to request items
- Using speech devices
- Starting with single words
- Advancing to using multiple words
- Situationally relevant full-sentence structuring
ABA therapy will find the most effective way for their clients to communicate, while also working to build up more complex language skills. A comprehensive ABA program will ensure that your child has therapy that addresses occasional repeating speech, requesting items, labeling items, and conversational skills.
Early ASD Intervention Services
Research supports (and many families are aware) that early ABA intervention services yield the best outcome for children with development delays. With more children being diagnosed with ASD, it is increasingly important to distinguish the type of early childhood intervention as ASD therapy is not a one-size-fits-all service. Early intervention services include Occupational Therapy (OT), Physical Therapy (PT), Speech Therapy, Developmental Therapy and ABA Therapy.
Early intervention is defined by the age of the child when they receive the therapy, not the specific type of therapy the child receives. The type of early intervention a child needs is specific to their delay.
Early ABA Intervention Programs
To date, ABA therapy is the only evidence-based therapy and early intervention service for children with autism. While children with autism will benefit from various other early intervention services, it is crucial they also receive ABA therapy at least 20 hours per week.
Various early intervention programs offered through state-run organizations, while important, do not replace early intervention (from birth to three years of age) ABA therapy programs for children with autism. If a child is showing signs of autism but has not been formally diagnosed, it is important to take them for a screening with a pediatrician. Once a diagnosis is given, funding paths for ABA are opened (which varies from state to state).