Autism Defined

1 in 68 children nationally are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, making it the most prevalent childhood developmental disorder in the U.S. (CDC 2014)

WHAT IS AUTISM?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a pervasive developmental disorder that encompasses autistic disorder, asperger’s disorder and pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). Formerly, each disorder had distinct criteria. Now only one set of criteria exists with all three under a single diagnosis: ASD. ASD is characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior. 

Although the presentation of ASD varies significantly among individuals, it affects every age group and occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. It can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination, sensory processing and attention, as well as physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances.

While there is no known cause for ASD, it likely begins in very early brain development (quite possibly even before birth) long before observable symptoms of the disorder ever emerge. The disruption in brain development leads to an interrupted learning process and as a result, development occurs more slowly. 

Currently trained professionals can only diagnose ASD by observing emerging behavior or by noting significant differences from how a person's peers function. For many, the most obvious signs and symptoms of ASD tend to emerge between 2 and 3 years of age. For others, differences may not become obvious until childhood, adolescence, or, for some, even adulthood.

VERY EARLY INDICATORS

As early detection improves, we are heading toward a shift in our consideration of ASD as a behavioral disorder. We need to stop waiting for behaviors to emerge before we consider an individual to have ASD. As we develop more accurate early detection methods, we may be able to identify the learning disruption that leads to ASD. Then we can develop more effective treatments that can improve learning and prevent ASD related behaviors from ever emerging.

CURRENT VERY EARLY INDICATORS

  • No babbling or pointing by age 1
  • No single words by 16 months or two-word phrases by age 2
  • No response to name
  • Loss of language or social skills
  • Poor eye contact
  • Excessive lining up of toys or objects
  • No smiling or social responsiveness
  • Difficulty with engaging
  • Does not seem to enjoy or seek interaction with others

LATER INDICATORS

  • Impaired ability to make friends with peers
  • Impaired ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others
  • Absence or impairment of imaginative and social play
  • Stereotyped, repetitive, or unusual use of language
  • Restricted patterns of interest that are abnormal in intensity or focus
  • Preoccupation with certain objects or subjects
  • Inflexible adherence to specific routines or rituals

WIDE VARIATIONS FROM PERSON TO PERSON

The presentation of ASD can vary widely from person to person in three areas:

Cognition - Some people may have a significant cognitive impairment, while others are gifted in some areas. Many have average or near average IQ.

Communication - Some people with ASD may not develop functional communication, while others may have speech, but not use it functionally. Still others will develop language on time and use it appropriately, but have limited social communication skills.

Socialization - Social impairment is a hallmark feature of ASD. Some may have little or no desire to socialize, and therefore, do not develop age appropriate skills. Others may have a strong desire to socialize, but because of ASD, they have difficulty interacting appropriately. As a result, they don’t get to socialize as much as they would like.

No one presentation fits everyone with ASD. It’s important to avoid stereotypes like, “All people with autism do . . . .” Remember, there are just as many individual differences among people with autism as there are among people without autism. Each person has his or her own combination of strengths and weaknesses. As with anyone, we at SARRC choose to emphasize people’s strengths, while also recognizing and supporting their challenges.

Autism Incidence Rates

The most recent prevalence report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates 1 in every 68 children have ASD, but that's a national average across specific states that contribute data to the CDC's surveillance study. In Arizona, the rates are slightly higher at 1 in 64. This doesn't mean living in Arizona presents any increased risk for having a child with ASD. It actually means we're better at detecting ASD in Arizona, particularly among Hispanics. The rates will likely continue climbing as detection and awareness improves. In fact, other studies of population rates indicate they could be as high as 1 in 50. Regardless of the specific rates, many people live with ASD in our society today. We need to do our best to provide opportunities for them to improve the quality of their life.