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Autism Spectrum Disorder: Signs, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts brain development. Autism spectrum disorder causes individuals to have difficulty communicating and interacting socially with others. An individual with ASD may also have the tendency to repeat specific patterns or behaviour.

About Autism Spectrum Disorder

Previously, autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive development disorder were considered separate types of autism. In 2003, they were placed under one umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.  Autism is known as a “spectrum” disorder because of the wide continuum of severity or developmental impairment.

The characteristics of autism spectrum disorder can differ for individuals, including:

  • Severity: mild to severe
  • Age of onset
  • Levels of functioning
  • Challenges socially interacting
  • Number of symptoms
  • Particular kinds of symptoms
  • Skill deficits

autistic child playing and puzzle pieces

A report by the Public Health Agency of Canada found that 1 in every 66 Canadian children has autism spectrum disorder. The report also showed that boys are 4-5 times more likely to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder than girls.

It’s best to know the early signs and symptoms of ASD as well as how medical professionals diagnose an individual with ASD.

Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder

You can identify the signs of autism as early as 12 to 24 months after a child is born. A child with autism spectrum disorder may demonstrate some of the following symptoms:

  • Developed language skills but loses it shortly after, or doesn’t acquire language at all
  • Not responsive to sounds, or responds unevenly to sounds and speech
  • Has tantrums and is difficult to console
  • Wakes up at night and has difficulty sleeping
  • Has difficulty bonding with parents
  • Requires a restrictive diet and only enjoys eating selected foods
  • Limited imaginative lay
  • Has difficult interacting with other children and doesn’t have much interest in being social
  • Chronic gastrointestinal problems
  • Repeated infections
  • Hypersensitivity to sounds, tastes, lights, etc.
  • Uncoordinated movements, or clumsiness
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Seizures

mom holding autistic son with heart in the background

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder also may show some of the following strengths:

  • Excellent focus and persistence
  • Ability to recognize patterns
  • Strong attention to detail

Since ASD covers a wide spectrum of conditions and severity, some individuals with ASD experience more severe symptoms while others are only mildly affected. Many individuals show significant progress with treatment and have the ability to independently participate in social and learning activities.

Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder

There are no medical blood tests used to diagnose autism and some pediatricians may not be experienced in diagnosing autism spectrum disorder. They may suggest that your child has yet to catch up with other children and is a late bloomer. But, if you feel that your child shows developmental issues and signs of autism, it’s recommended that you seek a second opinion or help from a specialist.

An evaluation of a person’s medical needs is essential to not only rule out other conditions that are similar to autism, but to address the issues that may be causing autism-like symptoms. Comorbid conditions (medical conditions that have shown to be prevalent in those with ASD) often accompany autism and these need to be addressed by appropriate health care professionals.

Male doctor assessing male child patient

Screening Tools for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Developmental screening tools are used to help identify children that may have developmental delays. There are many different types of tools administered by health care professionals, community service providers, and in some cases, parents. These include:

*Please note that no single score on any of the above tests or questionnaires indicates that an individual has autistic spectrum disorder.

Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder

If an individual is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, they may be referred to other medical professionals for treatment:

Female doctor assessing female child patient

Applied Behaviour Analysis  (ABA) is the most common and believed-to-be best researched treatment for people with ASD and other developmental delays. The goal of this type of therapy is to increase behaviours that are helpful and decrease behaviours that are harmful or affect learning.

ABA therapy can help individuals with autism spectrum disorder by:

  • Increasing communication and language skills
  • Improving attention, memory, and academics
  • Improving social skills
  • Decreasing harmful behaviours like tantrums

If you suspect that someone you love or yourself may have autism, please consult with your family doctor, neurologist, psychologist, or developmental pediatrician.  Autism Canada also offers developmental screening tools designed to help identify who might have developmental delays. You can also visit Autism Junction to find someone near you that can conduct a diagnostic assessment.

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