An Overview of Autism

Autism, also called "autism spectrum disorder (ASD)," is a developmental disorder. Developmental disorders are diagnosed in childhood but usually result in lifelong disabilities. There are many myths about autism and plenty of misinformation available on the internet. As a result, it can be hard to find reliable information about what autism really is—and isn't.

What Is Autism?

Autism is a disorder that includes differences and/or challenges in social communication skills, fine and gross motor skills, speech, and intellectual ability. People with autism also have atypical responses to sensory input, like unusual sensitivity to light, sound, smell, taste, and/or sensory cravings.

Other common symptoms include "stims" (hand flapping, toe walking, rocking), a need for sameness and repetition, anxiety, and—in some cases—amazing "savant" abilities in certain areas (often music and math).

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, it is possible to be mildly, moderately, or severely autistic. Confusingly, you can also have a combination of mild and severe symptoms. For example, it is possible to be very intelligent and verbal but also have severe symptoms of anxiety and sensory dysfunction.

It is important to know that autism is neither a mental illness nor a condition that gets worse over time. In fact, almost every autistic person grows and matures over time, particularly with intensive treatment.

By the same token, however, there is no established cure for autism. This means that a child diagnosed with autism will almost certainly grow up to be an adult with autism—with the challenges and strengths that come along with the diagnosis.

How Autism Has Changed

Autism was first described as a distinct disorder during the 1930's. The definition, however, has changed radically over the years. Perhaps most significantly, Asperger syndrome was added to the autism spectrum in 1994.

Since autism was first described, the number of people diagnosed has risen radically. This can be attributed, at least to a large extent, to changes in the definition of the disorder.

Between 1994 and May 2013, there were five different autism spectrum diagnoses. At one end of the spectrum was Asperger syndrome, sometimes called "The Little Professor syndrome." At at the other end of the spectrum was autistic disorder, known for profound developmental delays and challenges. In between were a variety of pervasive developmental disorders including Rett syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

Today, with the publication of the DSM-5 (Diagnostic Manual Version 5) there is only one diagnostic category for people with autism: autism spectrum disorder. Anyone with symptoms consistent with autism will receive an ASD diagnosis, along with a functional level (1 (high functioning), 2 (moderately severe), or 3 (severe)) and, if appropriate, specifiers. Some common specifiers include cognitive disabilities, seizure disorders, and so forth.

This change means that many people who were diagnosed with Asperger syndrome have "officially" lost that label. But because the term Asperger syndrome was so commonly used, and described such a specific diagnostic category, the name has stuck. As a result, many people with high functioning autism still describe themselves as having Asperger syndrome.

5 Things to Know About Autism

1. In most cases, we don't know what causes autism. We know that a few drugs, taken during pregnancy, can increase the risk of autism. Outside of that, however, our knowledge is limited.

For example, we know that boys are at much higher risk than girls, but we don't know why. Similarly, we know that older parents are more likely to have autistic children—but again, we don't know why. We do know that autism seems to run in families, but short of deciding not to have children at all, there is no way to know if a baby will or will not be autistic.

2. There are many effective autism treatments but no known cure. Autism treatments are rarely medical, but instead include intensive behavioral, developmental, speech, and occupational therapy. In many cases, therapies can have a significantly positive impact.

Because many children with autism have gastrointestinal issues, it is often important to avoid certain foods while ensuring your child has proper nutrition. At present, however, there is no drug, treatment, or special diet that will actually cure autism.

3. Autism can be a source of strengths as well as challenges. There are, of course, many challenges associated with autism. But at the same time, many people on the spectrum have moderate to extreme strengths. For example:

  • Many people with autism are highly intelligent. An even larger number are of at least average intelligent with areas of great intellectual strength.
  • Many people on the spectrum have strong abilities in the areas of music, math, technology, art, and engineering—though true "savant" skills are rare.
  • People with autism tend to be trustworthy and honest, in part because they find it difficult to recognize or use sarcasm, dishonesty, flattery, or "white lies."

4. There are many myths about autism. It is difficult for most non-autistic people to imagine what it is like to be autistic. In addition, most developmental and IQ tests are developed for non-autistic people. As a result, myths have arisen around autism.

For example, some people believe that autistic people are incapable of love, have no imagination, or are emotionless. These beliefs arise from misunderstanding and not from reality.

5. All forms of autism can be challenging. Severe forms of autism can be very difficult to manage because they can come along with aggressive behaviors and extreme communication challenges. But high functioning autism is often accompanied by mental health issues such as anxiety, obsessive behaviors, serious sensory dysfunction, and even depression.

For Those With a Recent Diagnosis

If your young child was recently diagnosed with autism, it's a good idea to seek a second opinion—especially if the diagnosis came from a source other than a professional with extensive autism experience.

Once you've confirmed your child's diagnosis, a good next step is to contact your pediatrician and school district to set up early intervention services. You may also want to look into therapeutic preschool programs and playgroups. When researching autism, be sure to check out your sources carefully, as there is a great deal of misinformation available on the internet and through the grapevine.

When adults are diagnosed with autism, it is usually because they are living with relatively mild symptoms. The reality is that there is no need to do anything at all following a diagnosis; autism is not curable, so therapies and medications are optional.

Many adults, however, do choose to follow up on their diagnosis by reaching out to adult self-advocacy and support groups, by finding a therapist with appropriate experience, by seeking help with sensory challenges, or by simply learning more about the disorder.

Questions to Ask About Autism

As you begin to think about an autism diagnosis, there are some specific questions you'll want to investigate. These are likely to include:

Living With Autism

If your child is diagnosed with autism, it will be a factor in most decisions you make with and for him/her. Your decisions will vary depending upon your child's symptoms, your response to those symptoms, your living situation, and your finances.

But no matter what, you'll need to think about and plan around your child's autism. Perhaps more significantly, you'll need to work with schools, state and federal agencies, therapists, and lawyers to advocate for your child's needs.

A Word From Verywell

A diagnosis of autism can be overwhelming. For some people, it can even be frightening. But it's important to know that it is more than possible to live well with autism.

Over time, you will discover a wide range of resources and opportunities available to children with autism and their families. You'll also discover your own ability to cope—and even thrive—with autism.

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