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What You Need to Know About Autism Spectrum Disorder

ASD affects 1 in 44 children in the US. Here's what you need to know to best support the community and create awareness.

paper head with blue puzzle pieces, a common image used to signify autism
Carol Yepes/Moment/Getty Images

Autism spectrum disorder is a broad range of conditions that can affect a person's behavior, social skills and communication. ASD affects people in different ways and continues throughout a person's life.

If you have a loved one or know someone with autism, you are likely well-educated in how it can affect their life and how to best support them. However, the same isn't true for everyone who interacts with a person with ASD -- whether that be friends, teachers, co-workers or even strangers.

Here's what we know about ASD.

What is autism spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological and developmental condition that can affect a person's ability to learn, communicate and interact socially. ASD is considered a spectrum disorder because its symptoms and severity vary from one person to another. Some people with autism can go about life entirely independently, while others may require considerable assistance with daily tasks.

According to 2018 data, the CDC reported that roughly 1 in 44 children in the US is diagnosed with ASD. Here are some statistics you may not know about ASD in the US.

ASD prevalence is pretty similar across all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic groups. Girls are four times less likely to be diagnosed with autism than boys. And 31% of children diagnosed with ASD are classified in the range of intellectual disability, 25% are in the borderline range and 44% are classified in the average to above-average range. 

What are the symptoms of autism?

It's important to know that not all people with autism will exhibit the same symptoms. According to a guide created by the American Psychiatric Association to help healthcare providers diagnose mental health disorders, there are three general indications of ASD -- difficulty interacting socially, communication problems and limited repetitive behaviors. 

Impact of autism on social interactions

Social interaction is how you act or manage certain situations and interact with other people. This includes interpreting social cues, problem-solving and responding. 

People on the autism spectrum often have difficulty socializing and reading other people. They may lack motivation in interacting with those around them or experience social anxiety. However, this is not true for all people with ASD -- others may enjoy social engagement.

Common social skill deficits and indicators include:

  • Lack of interest in initiating social interactions
  • Difficulty maintaining eye contact
  • Inability to read the nonverbal cues of others
  • Not being able to view another person's perspective
  • Not understanding sarcasm and metaphors

Impact of autism on communication skills

Communication can be defined as meaningful connections between people in which information is passed and processed -- it can be verbal or nonverbal. People with autism may find communicating with others challenging. Children with ASD often have difficulty developing language skills and fully understanding what others say. People with ASD may also find nonverbal communication like eye contact, facial expressions and body language challenging.

People with ASD may display the following communication patterns:

  • Rigid or repetitive language
  • Slow or uneven language development
  • Limited conversational interests
  • Poor nonverbal communication skills
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Getty Images

Restricted and repetitive behaviors in autism

Repetitive behaviors or "stimming" are amongst the most common symptoms of autism spectrum disorders. People with ASD may present repetitive behaviors in motor skills (fidgeting with hands, turning light switches on and off) or in speech (repeating the same statements or questions). 

Many people with autism may experience sensory processing dysfunction. This means that certain senses, like sounds or light, may overstimulate them. Stimming is used as a self-soothing mechanism by distracting them from strong emotions.

Some repetitive behaviors may look like:

  • Echolalia (repeating words or phrases)
  • Over or under stimulation by certain sensory outputs
  • Limited interest in specific topics
  • Lining up items or toys
  • Getting upset when changes are made to their routine

Diagnosing ASD

Diagnosing autism spectrum disorders can be challenging because there aren't any biological tests that detect ASD. Healthcare providers analyze a person's behavior and development to make a diagnosis. Most doctors often wait until a child is at least two years old to make a reliable diagnosis. Many pediatricians use the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) to help identify if a child is prone to developing ASD.

This screening does not provide a diagnosis but determines if a child is on the right development track for their age or if more in-depth screenings are needed.

Treatments for autism

There is no cure for autism but rather a wide variety of support and intervention plans that can help minimize and manage symptoms. Since autism manifests differently in people, treatment plans will also be unique for every person. Treatments for ASD are designed to reduce symptoms that affect daily activities and overall quality of life. Studies have proven that early diagnosis and intervention are more likely to have long-term effects of minimizing symptoms.

Treatment for people with autism may include one or a combination of the following:

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Common myths and misconceptions about ASD

There are many misconceptions about autism and how it impacts people diagnosed with it. Here are common myths and facts about autism spectrum disorder.

Myth: ASD affects people the same way.

The truth is that people with autism all have different challenges and strengths. It's called a spectrum because people display various symptoms and severity. Some may be highly skilled in certain areas like math, history or speech, while others may present learning difficulty in these topics or may be nonverbal.

Myth: Autism is a mental health disorder.

Autism is not a mental health disorder but a neurological disorder. Neurological disorders affect brain development and the nerves throughout the human body. ASD can affect how a person learns, socializes, communicates and behaves.

Myth: Vaccines cause autism.

There is no single cause of autism; genetics and environment can play a role. Over the years, there have been concerns about vaccines causing ASD. However, studies have shown no link between vaccines and autism.

Why is autism awareness important?

The United Nations declared April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day. The idea behind the decree is to create awareness around ASD to destigmatize the notions associated with autism and promote inclusion. The lack of understanding can significantly affect people with autism and their families.

Whether you, a loved one or someone you know has autism, you can help spread awareness and create a more accepting and safe community for those with ASD. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.