What is Autism? Everything You Need to Know
Autism is a condition that many people have a lot of questions about. This is probably because there are a lot of misconceptions about autism and about the people who have this condition. Further, the ways that autism is portrayed in the media are not always accurate and don’t tell the full story.
Autism is also a very heterogeneous condition, which means that it can look very different depending on the individual person and the severity of their condition. Some people with autism are completely nonverbal or require hands-on care into adulthood, while others with autism might not display any of the “obvious” symptoms.
Are you looking to learn more about autism and how it’s treated? We’ve compiled all the information you need to know into one comprehensive guide.
What is Autism in Medical Terms?
Autism is a chronic neurodevelopmental disorder, which means that it first appears in childhood and is a lifelong condition without a cure. While autism usually begins before the age of 3, some children may start showing signs and symptoms of autism as early as 9 months of age.
You may sometimes hear autism referred to as autism spectrum disorder or ASD. ASD is a relatively newer term that has been adopted in the last 10 years. ASD is a term that captures the complexity of autism, where some people may fall on different ends of the autism spectrum.
Some people with autism may have more mild impairments, while others may have more severe symptoms. ASD as a term captures that complexity. It also includes other conditions that fall under the autism umbrella, such as Aspberger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorders (PDD-NOS).
Autism also tends to have a high rate of comorbidity with other disorders, which means that there are some other conditions that are commonly diagnosed in people who have autism. Some common comorbid disorders for people who have autism are attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), down syndrome, intellectual disabilities, seizures or epilepsy, sleep disorders, feeding disorders, anxiety, and depression.
How Common is Autism?
Autism and ASD are relatively common in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that about 1 in 44 children have autism, a rate that’s just over 2%.
Autism and ASD tend to be more frequently diagnosed in boys than girls: some estimates state that boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.
Does this mean that girls are less likely to have autism? Not necessarily. Some researchers have suggested that girls may display autism symptoms differently. They may be even more skilled at camouflaging their symptoms or “masking” than boys are.
Signs and Symptoms of Autism
What are the symptoms of autism? What kinds of signs should you look out for if you think your child or another family member may have autism??
Researchers and clinicians have outlined three main areas that symptoms of autism tend to fall under. These areas are difficulties with communication, social challenges, and repetitive behaviors and interests.
Difficulties with Communication
One of the first things that a parent might notice in a child with autism is difficulties or delays with communication. A child may appear to be learning to speak right on track, then suddenly regress and stop communicating altogether.
As they get older, some children with autism may develop language skills, but at a pace that’s more delayed than their non-autistic peers. People with autism might also do things like avoid making eye contact with others or refrain from using other non-verbal communication, like not waving their hand to say goodbye to someone, for example.
Along with having difficulties in communication, people with autism also tend to have social challenges. Unfortunately, these difficulties can go hand in hand with communication difficulties making social interaction more challenging.
Some signs and symptoms to look out for when it comes to social challenges are avoiding eye contact or showing little interest in interacting with others. Children with autism can have a hard time developing relationships with their peers.
A parent of a child with autism might also notice that their child has a hard time with perspective-taking or putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. This can mean that they’re not able to pick up on someone’s emotional state, like not interpreting the physical or situational cues that someone is sad or upset. It can also mean that they have difficulties figuring out what someone else is thinking, such as not understanding that someone pointing at an object is directing wants them to look at it.
Repetitive Behaviors and Interests
Another sign of autism is repetitive behaviors and interests. Some people with autism may show intense interest in specific topics, which is sometimes called hyperfixation. An example might be a person with autism who is obsessed with trains and knows everything about them, or someone who is a mathematics whiz and can complete complex arithmetic without a calculator.
Someone with autism might also show some rigidity or repetitive behaviors. Some examples would be a child who lines their toys up in a specific way or someone who flaps their hands when they feel excited or overwhelmed.
How is Autism Diagnosed?
You may suspect that your child or a family member has autism. Maybe you’re even wondering if you might have autism. How can you find out for sure?
Autism can only be diagnosed by a licensed medical provider, so if you suspect that you or someone in your family has autism, the best thing to do is to talk to your doctor.
There isn’t a formal medical test for autism as there are for some other ailments – no blood test or brain scan can say for sure that your child has autism. Instead, doctors will look holistically at all of the symptoms and behaviors that your child is showing.
After screening for some of the signs and symptoms of autism that were mentioned above, doctors might refer you and your child for further evaluation to confirm a diagnosis. Your doctor might refer you to several different kinds of practitioners with specific training in diagnosing autism, including neuropsychologists, psychiatrists, and speech-language pathologists. Those practitioners will conduct a more comprehensive evaluation of your child’s abilities and symptoms, leading to a formal diagnosis.
An official or formal diagnosis of autism can also be beneficial because it can help your family access essential treatment options.
How Early Can Autism Be Diagnosed?
Doctors and researchers continue to make more and more advancements in the diagnosis of autism. Typically, autism is diagnosed before the age of 3, but it can sometimes be detected as early as 18 months.
Because of the importance of early intervention and treatment, doctors will typically screen for autism signs during regular well-child visits around 18 and 24 months.
Is Autism Genetic? What Causes Autism?
You might be wondering, is autism genetic? Do kids with autism inherit it from their parents? Well, the research says that yes, there is a strong genetic component to autism, but genetics don’t capture the full story.
Autism indeed has a strong genetic component. If someone has a sibling with autism, they are 25 times more likely also to have autism themselves. Researchers have also found that having a parent with autism, or having parents who are older than average, can increase the risk of having autism.
Some other environmental and genetic factors can increase the risk for autism, including having certain genetic conditions like Down syndrome and being born with a very low birth weight.
Do Vaccines Cause Autism?
No, vaccines do not cause autism. The science is clear on this fact. You may have heard about a supposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism; however, this research has been debunked and determined to be falsified again and again. Essentially, the data that showed this alleged link was completely made up!
Nevertheless, the myth that vaccines cause autism has persisted in our culture. However, you can rest assured that vaccines do not cause autism.
Can Adults Have Autism?
Yes, adults can have autism! Although our stereotypical image of a person with autism tends to be much younger, usually a young child, it’s true that adults can have autism. After all, children tend to grow into adults as they get older!
Some adults with autism were diagnosed when they were kids. Some other adults with autism don’t get diagnosed until they reach adulthood. For adults without a diagnosis in childhood, they tend to be much higher functioning than adults who were diagnosed as kids, which explains why their autism went undetected into adulthood.
Signs of Autism in Adults
You might be wondering, what are some signs of autism in adults? As we mentioned above, adults with autism who weren’t diagnosed as children tend to be a bit more high functioning and may only show some mild symptoms.
Some signs of autism in adults are: having a hard time understanding other people’s thoughts and emotions, difficulties communicating in social situations, being rigid about routines and becoming upset if routines are disrupted, and having a hard time making friends or connecting to their people.
Some adults with autism have described feeling like an alien or outsider all of their lives, unable to understand other people’s mannerisms, communication, or intentions.
How is Autism Diagnosed in Adults?
Diagnosing autism in adults is a little different than diagnosing a child. For adults, the first step you should take is to speak to your doctor. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist for further evaluation and potential treatment.
Can Girls Have Autism?
Yes, girls can have autism. Autism tends to be more commonly diagnosed in boys, with boys being about 4 times as likely to be diagnosed with autism compared to girls. Some researchers have speculated whether that’s because boys are actually more likely to have autism or if it’s actually that autism is underdiagnosed in girls.
It might actually be that gender bias leads to differences in the ways that autism appears in girls, which then leads it to be less frequently diagnosed in girls. For instance, when a girl seems shyer, more emotional, or engages in repetitive behaviors when overwhelmed (like flapping her hands), this might be seen as more “typical” behaviors for a girl rather than signs of autism.
Signs of Autism in Girls
What are the signs of autism in girls? Does autism look different in girls compared to boys? Yes, the signs of autism in girls can be slightly different in boys, which is why some people have speculated that autism tends to be underdiagnosed in girls.
There are some common signs of autism in girls. Girls with autism might be described as shy, especially in social situations or at school. Girls with autism might also display hyperfixation, such as having an extreme interest in a specific TV show and limiting most conversations to that topic. This hyperfocus can also lead to difficulties with forming friendships.
Girls with autism might also have a harder time with extreme sensory experiences, such as bright lights, big crowds of people, or strong smells. This sensory overwhelm can lead to more meltdowns or disruptive bouts of emotion when frustrated.
How is Autism Treated?
Despite the challenges that come along with autism, there are some helpful treatment options available. Most treatments for autism tend to focus on reducing behavioral symptoms and improving a person’s daily functioning.
Because autism is such a diverse, heterogeneous disorder, there are diverse and heterogeneous treatment options. Some treatments focus on building social skills or cognitive skills. Some treatment options include medications to help alleviate some of the symptoms that co-occur with autism, such as trouble focusing or self-harm behaviors.
One notable treatment option is Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA. ABA therapy is a treatment that focuses on changing problematic behaviors as a way to improve functioning.
What is ABA Therapy?
ABA therapy stands for Applied Behavior Analysis, which essentially means that it uses principles of behavioral psychology to increase positive behaviors and reduce negative ones. Here at NAC – a Las Vegas ABA Therapy center – our caring RBT’s and BCBA’s are on standby to talk to you about your particular situation.
Learn more about ABA therapy in Las Vegas
Are you curious to learn more about ABA therapy and how you might access this treatment for your child here is Las Vegas or across Nevada? You can learn more on our services page. Alternatively, you can reach out to us right now and ask any question about enrolling your child in our comprehensive program.