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Autism Awareness Month: What Are Autism Spectrum Disorders?

April 06, 2017 | Lindsey Esker M.A. CCC-SLP

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autism awareness monthIt was in the late 1960s that autism was established as a syndrome—distinct from intellectual disability and other developmental disorders. That’s an important piece of history because until it was recognized, therapy options were limited.

Our understanding of autism—including research, nutrition, therapy and education—has been on a march forward ever since. In honor of autism awareness month, we're talking about Autism Spectrum Disorder and how it is classified and diagnosed.

Until 2013, autism was classified into four different types, including autistic disorder (also called “classic” autism), Asperger syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder (also known as “atypical autism”) and childhood disintegrative disorder.

Now, these separate terms are no longer used. Instead, they have all been folded into one umbrella diagnosis called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

We’ve all heard of autism, of course, but what exactly is the definition? According to the nonprofit Autism Speaks, it is a general terms for a “group of complex disorders of brain development.”

These disorders can—as the word “spectrum” implies—vary quite a bit but are all characterized by difficulties with social interaction (including verbal and non-verbal communication) and repetitive behaviors. ASD can also be associated with intellectual disability, as well as difficulty in motor coordination and attention. It is sometimes also associated with health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances.

Around 1 in 69 children in the United States are on the autism spectrum, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And ASD is four to five times more common among boys than girls.

Although the old definitions of the types of autism are no longer used, when diagnosed with ASD, a child is also classified with a certain level to indicate how much support he or she will need. These are the descriptions provided by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders on those classifications:

Requiring Support (Level 1): This child speaks in full sentences, but struggles to make conversation and connect with peers. The child's repetitive behavior causes interference. For example, she may have difficulty shifting between tasks which interferes with her ability to follow a school schedule.

Substantial support (Level 2): This child may speak in simple sentences or limit his interactions to a specific interest. This child's repetitive behaviors are obvious to the casual observer and cause difficulties in multiple settings. For example the child may talk excessively about a specific topic, which creates social difficulties with school peers and family members.

Very substantial support (Level 3): This is a child with severe deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills or extreme behaviors. This child's repetitive behaviors produce marked impairment in many contexts. For example, he spends the majority of his time engaged in stereotyped behaviors to the exclusion of interacting with others.

The goal of the new criteria and classification system is to help children get diagnosed at an earlier age, clarify the nature of autism spectrum disorders, streamline the terminology used to describe the disorder, and get children help as soon as possible.

Our Pediatric Therapy Department offers an ASD evaluation if ASD is suspected. Fisher-Titus also offers specialized therapy services and support services through the Autism Spectrum Kids (ASK) program. If you think your child may have an autism spectrum disorder, contact us today at 419-663-1975, Ext. 3040 for help with a possible diagnosis and treatment.

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