Family Health: Autism Resource and Review Guide

Autism impacts the lives of many but is not widely understood by large parts of the population. Some may think it is merely acting strange, or believe that it can be cured, or that autism is simply a behavioral issue and not a developmental one. However, autism is a serious and real disorder that is being diagnosed more and understood better, and it is essential for everyone to understand the challenges and opportunities of autism.

What is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder. Sometimes referred to as autism spectrum disorder, autism can present anywhere within a full spectrum of symptoms including challenges with social skills, repetitive behavior patterns, and communication delays and differences. Autism is caused by both genetic and environmental factors, which is why no two people present on the spectrum the same way. Many with autism present weaknesses in some areas, but show incredible strengths in other areas of their lives.

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Characteristics of Autism

As mentioned, no two people with autism will present in exactly the same way. Although many believe people with autism do not speak, this is not always the case. Only about one-third of those with autism remain completely non-verbal their entire lives. Autism does present in a few major ways, however. Behavioral peculiarities may be present because people with autism sometimes have a hard time reacting to an environment or situation. Also, people with autism may need routine in order to function or they may become very focused on one area of study, to the exclusion of all others.

People with autism may also have difficulty with social interactions and establish and maintaining relationships, although this is not always the case, and the degree of severity of this can vary widely. It is in part due to difficulties with processing behavioral cues like gestures, tone, and facial expression. At its core, autism is a developmental processing disorder. This relates directly to the problems many people with autism may experience with communication. Some people with autism do not verbalize and many will have delayed verbal communication. This does not indicate low intelligence, but instead it may point to a problem with processing social cues and development.

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Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing autism can be difficult. Unlike many medical disorders, there is no blood test or physical exam to diagnose autism. Behavior and development have to be studied by doctors, and a proper diagnosis can sometimes take a significant amount of time. Diagnosing autism has two main steps. They are developmental screening and comprehensive diagnostic evaluation.

Screening begins at nine months, and autism can sometimes be diagnosed as early as eighteen months. Testing involves checking development against standardized milestones over a long period. Evaluation, the second step, generally includes interviews with the parents, hearing and vision screenings, and possibly genetic testing. Even with these steps, testing is sometimes an inexact science. Many doctors do not routinely test for autism and mild forms of autism may go undetected for more extended periods of time. Treatment should begin early, although there is no cure or one specific treatment for autism. It varies from case to case and should be tailored for the individual child.  

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Children with Autism

While some adults are found to have autism later in life, most who are diagnosed are diagnosed as children. Children are still developing their personalities and learning social cues, communication, and their interests. Because they are still developing, sometimes autism can be hard to diagnose. Children diagnosed with autism can begin treatment earlier, leading to a higher chance of independence and success in life. The earlier a child is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can begin. Treatment for autism includes behavioral, speech, and physical therapy which sometimes also includes occupational therapy. The sooner these types of therapy begin, the more effective they can be.

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Special Considerations

Children with autism do require some special considerations, although not all children require all considerations. Some children may need extra time on exams or particular settings in which to take them. Some children with autism benefit from smaller class sizes and hands-on learning. Children with autism should also be approached with knowledge of autism. For example, teaching children about another child’s differences is important, and adults should be educated as well.

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Safety

People, and children especially, with autism do need some special safety considerations. Children who are non-verbal should always have some identification on them and should know how to indicate that they need help and how to share their emergency contact information when needed. In addition, children who engage in repetitive behaviors should be monitored in case their behavior becomes dangerous or harmful.

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Additional Resources

For people with autism, there are multiple resources available for education and advice. For those who know someone with autism, there is a wealth of educational materials available. These resources can help everyone to learn more about autism.

The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder has a resource guide with helpful information for children, adults, and their families: Resources.

The American Psychological Association discusses effective educational methods for teaching students with autism: Effective education for autism.

PBS also talks about education for students on the autism spectrum: Autism: important components of a comprehensive educational approach.

The Colorado Department of Education talks more about the condition on their website Autism spectrum disorder