What Is Autism? - The Autism Analyst
What Is Autism?

When we first see a child acting oddly or “different”, most of us probably brush it off. Children can be adorably random and act quirkier when around their friends, schoolmates, or during certain developmental phases in their lives. Yet, not all childhood behavior falls in line with what is seen as developmentally or socially appropriate.

You may notice that your child has stopped making eye contact with you or responding to their name. You may have seen them tippy-toe walking, or not playing with their toys properly. They may have stopped talking or feeding themselves. These behaviors may start gradually, or may show up seemingly out of the blue.

It’s natural to feel scared, unsure what is happening, confused, or even self-blame. These are all natural reactions to your child’s symptoms. We’re here to help you sort out the tough stuff, and offer you a hand up for empowerment. You’re not alone.

What Is Autism?

Dr. Leo Kanner provided the first systematic description of autism in the early 1940’s, where he reported his findings as autism being similar in nature to schizophrenia. We now know this is not the case, and that autism is a developmental disorder with symptoms that typically appear within the first 18 months of a child’s life.

Small regressions may first be noticed, such as reduced eye contact or not responding to their name. These typically progress in severity, and often generalize to other noticeable behaviors such as falling behind in other developmental milestones (dressing themselves, speaking, fine and gross motor skills, etc.).

The DSM-V identifies Autism (ASD) as:

    Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history:

    • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.

    • Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.

    • Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.

    Specify current severity: Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted repetitive patterns of behavior.

    Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history:

    • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).

    • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat food every day).

    • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g, strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interest).

    • Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).

    Specify current severity: Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior

  • Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities or may be masked by learned strategies in later life).

  • Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.

  • These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay. Intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder frequently co-occur; to make comorbid diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability, social communication should be below that expected for general developmental level

Early Signs

While autism can only be formally diagnosed by a healthcare professional such as a clinical psychologist or neurologist, there are common “red flags” and early warning signs that can provide parents, caregivers, and specialists information on whether the symptoms observed may be autism.

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Rigid routines, and a need for sameness, which can include insistence on going the same route to school, inflexibility, tantrum behavior, or meltdown with changes in schedule

  • May habitually roll round objects (balls, wheels on cars, etc.), spin, rock, flap their hands, or stare at bright or flickering lights

  • Self-stimulatory behaviors such as teeth-grinding, staring at rotating objects, excessive rubbing of soft or textured items, smelling objects, or vocal noises such as squeals or grunts

  • A tendency to listen to the same song, watch the same movie, or repeat the same words

  • May display self-injurious or aggressive behavior

Adaptive Self-Help Symptoms:

  • Regression with previously mastered skills such as toilet training, dressing, grooming, or feeding themselves

  • Difficulty in learning new adaptive skills, or noncompliance in learning skills

Social/Emotional Symptoms:

  • Delayed speech, regression in spoken words (no longer using words they once did), or nonverbal, given chronological age

  • Avoids eye contact

  • Difficulties with tone of voice or difficulty modulating their voice

  • Difficulties in recognizing nonverbal gestures or with responding to them, such as “Come here”

  • Prefers solitary play

  • Difficulties with understanding personal space

  • May engage in echolalia or vocal stim behavior

  • Flat affect, or difficulty using or recognizing facial expressions in self or others

  • Inconsistent in responding to their name

Common Co-Occurring Disorders:

Co-occurring conditions, or “comorbidity” with ASD are very common. Some of the most common comorbid conditions include: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Sensory Processing Disorder, dyslexia, apraxia, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal symptoms, seizures or epilepsy, Down syndrome and Fragile X syndrome. If you believe your family member may have a comorbid disorder, please speak to a doctor or specialized clinician for help and support.

Educate. Empower. Accept.
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