Autism Spectrum Disorder

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder is a group of developmental disorders that affect communication, social interactions, and behavior. The disorders start in early childhood and continue throughout life.

ASD affects each person differently. Some people with ASD have above-average intelligence. Others have severe intellectual disabilities. Some people can do most basic activities or learn to do them. Others require a lot of assistance.

What are the causes?

The exact cause of this condition is not known. Most experts believe that ASD is caused by genes that are passed down through families.

What increases the risk?

This condition is more likely to develop in people who:

  • Are male.
  • Have a family history of the condition.
  • Were born before 26 weeks of pregnancy (prematurely).
  • Were born with another genetic disorder.
  • Were conceived when their parents were older than 35–40 years of age.
  • Were exposed to a seizure medicine called valproic acid while in their mother’s womb.

What are the signs or symptoms?

Symptoms of this condition include:

  • Not interacting with other people.
  • Poor eye contact.
  • Inappropriate facial expressions.
  • Trouble making friends.
  • Repetitive movements, such as hand flapping, rocking back and forth, or head movements.
  • Arranging items in an order.
  • Echoing what other people say (echolalia).
  • Always wanting things to be the same. You may want to eat the same foods, take the same route to school or work, or follow the same order of activities each day.
  • Being completely focused on an object or topic of interest.
  • Unusually strong or mild response when experiencing certain things, such as sounds, pain, extreme temperatures, certain textures, or scents.

Some people with ASD also have learning problems, depression, anxiety, or seizures.

How is this diagnosed?

This condition is diagnosed with a comprehensive assessment. You may need to see a team of health care providers, which may include:

  • A psychologist or psychiatrist.
  • A speech and language therapist.
  • A neurologist.

Your health care providers will assess your behavior and development. They will determine whether you have level 1, level 2, or level 3 ASD.

Level 1 ASD is the mildest form of the condition. With treatment, this form may not be noticeable. If you have this form, you may:

  • Speak in full sentences.
  • Have no repetitive behaviors.
  • Have trouble starting interactions or friendships with others.
  • Have trouble switching between two or more activities.

Level 2 ASD is a moderate form of the condition. If you have this form, you may:

  • Speak in simple sentences.
  • Repeat certain behaviors, which interferes with daily activities from time to time.
  • Only interact with others about specific, shared interests.
  • Have trouble coping with change.
  • Have unusual nonverbal communication skills.

Level 3 ASD is the most severe form of the condition. This form interferes with daily life. If you have this form, you may:

  • Speak rarely or use very few understandable words.
  • Repeat certain behaviors often, which gets in the way of daily activities.
  • Interact with others awkwardly and not very often.
  • Have extreme difficulty coping with change.

How is this treated?

There is no cure for this condition, but treatment can make symptoms less severe. A team of health care providers will design a treatment program to meet your needs. Treatment usually involves a combination of therapies that address the following:

  • Social skills.
  • Language and communication.
  • Behavior.
  • Skills for daily living.
  • Movement and coordination.

Sometimes medicines are prescribed to treat depression and anxiety, seizures, or certain behavioral problems. Training and support for your family can also be part of your treatment program.

Follow these instructions at home:

  • Learn as much as you can about ASD. Make sure you understand your condition.
  • Work closely with your health care providers.
  • Take over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as told by your health care provider.
  • Check with your health care provider before taking any new medicines.
  • Keep all follow-up visits as told by your team of health care providers. This is important.

Contact a health care provider if:

  • You have new symptoms.
  • Your symptoms get worse or do not respond to treatment.
  • You are behaving in ways that harm you or others.
  • You develop convulsions. Signs of convulsions include:
    • Jerking and twitching.
    • Sudden falls for no reason.
    • Lack of response.
    • Dazed behavior for brief periods.
    • Staring.
    • Rapid blinking.
    • Unusual sleepiness.
    • Irritability when waking.
  • You become depressed. Signs of depression include:
    • Unusual sadness.
    • Decreased appetite.
    • Weight loss.
    • Lack of interest in things that are normally enjoyed.
    • Trouble sleeping.
  • You become anxious. Signs of anxiety include:
    • Worrying a lot.
    • Restlessness.
    • Irritability.
    • Trembling.
    • Trouble sleeping.
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