Understanding Children on the Spectrum
Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability. According to the Centers for Disease and Prevention, autism affects 1 in 68 children. It is a lifelong disability and although it has no known cure, there are plenty of treatments that help reduce symptoms, such as auditory training, discrete trial training, vitamin therapy, anti-yeast therapy, facilitated communication, music therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and sensory integration.
Symptoms usually start revealing themselves around age three. Scientists believe children are either born with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or with the potential to develop the disorder. Understanding children on the spectrum can be difficult when you don’t understand what is going on, but this article should help you gain a better understanding so that you can act accordingly.
One common misconception about autism comes from only looking at the most severe type of autism, and the assumption that autism is a mental illness. In reality, autism is not a mental illness and it is not just one disorder. It is a neurological disorder that makes up a spectrum of disorders that share a core set of symptoms associated with social skills, communication and behavior. While each child tends to suffer from those issues, the level severity, impact, the combination of symptoms, and the behaviors and abilities of each child on the spectrum can be vastly different. Plus, people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged, making the way they learn, think and problem-solve very different.
There are many adults and children walking around that are high-functioning autistic, yet you would never know it, and it is likely that they don’t even know it. These people are highly intelligent individuals who often have difficulties in social settings and feel different than others. They are complex individuals who may experience components of obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, social anxiety or depression. Often these people can come off as rude or disrespectful, but underneath they are really just having difficulties interacting socially.
Types of Autism Spectrum Disorders
When people refer to autism, they aren’t always referring to classic autism, but might instead be referring to any degree of the autism spectrum disorder. This umbrella of disorders includes pervasive developmental disorders (PDD), which includes autism, Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). While categorizing is not going to help you with understanding children on the spectrum, we have included a brief description of each below:
Classic Autism – Otherwise known as autism disorder, classic autism is at the most severe level on the spectrum. According to the Autism Spectrum Resource Center, about 20% of those who are on the autism spectrum have classic autism.
Asperger’s Syndrome – Also referred to as high-functioning autism, Asperger’s syndrome is less severe than classic autism.
PDD-NOS – Otherwise referred to as atypical autism, PDD-NOS is also milder in severity.
Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorders
The signs of ASD are mostly related to the following areas:
- Social Skills
- Speech and Language
- Restricted Activities and Interests
Having these symptoms does not mean your child has an autism spectrum disorder. Instead, these disorders are diagnosed based upon the severity, combination and patterns of these behaviors. Multiple symptoms must be present, inhibiting your child’s ability to communicate, interact, have relationships, learn and play.
Social Skills Symptoms to Look For:
Here are some social issues to look for that are often prevalent in children who are on the spectrum:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Using facial expressions that don’t match what they are saying
- Lack of interest in other people
- Lack of interest in sharing achievements or interests
- Difficulty making friends with children their age
- Preference of being alone
- Coming across as aloof and detached
- Difficulty understanding other people’s nonverbal cues, feelings and reactions
- Resistance to being touched
- Often prefer things to people because people make them anxious
Speech and Language Symptoms to Look For:
Difficulty with speech and/or language comprehension can be a sign of an autism spectrum disorder. Here are some examples of speech and language symptoms:
- Delay in learning to speak
- Difficulty communicating needs and desires
- Not understanding simple statements or questions
- Taking things too literally
- Missing humor, sarcasm or irony
- Difficulty starting or continuing a conversation
- Speaking in an abnormal tone of voice
- Speaking with an odd rhythm or pitch
- Repeating words or phrases over and over
Restricted Behavior and Play Symptoms to Look For:
Children who exhibit symptoms of restricted behavior and play may have an autism spectrum disorder. Here are some symptoms to look for:
- Repetitive body movements, such as rocking back and forth or flapping hands
- Obsessive need for order, routines and sameness
- Attachment to unusual objects
- Being preoccupied with certain topics, often involving numbers or symbols
- Getting caught up on parts of an object instead of playing with the whole thing, such as spinning the wheels on a car instead of playing with the car
- Being clumsy or having unusual ways of moving
- Having less spontaneity than other children
- Being disinterested or unaware of what is going on around them
- Plays differently than other children. For example, they don’t usually play make-believe, use their toys in creative ways, imitate others or engage in group games.
Additional Signs and Symptoms of Children on the Spectrum:
The following symptoms are not used as part of an official diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, however they can be signs to look for and can help with understanding children on the spectrum:
- Under-reacting or overreacting to sensory stimuli
- Ignoring people who are speaking to them
- Being sensitive to even the softest sound
- Being upset by sudden noises
- Sensitivity to touch and texture
- Hyperarousal or stimulous overload, particularly around people
- Difficulty either expressing their emotions or regulating them
- Breaking things, hitting others or harming himself when stressed
- Not being phased by dangers like moving cars or heights, while being terrified of harmless objects
- Tendency toward depression and anxiety
- Social anxiety
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
- Unevenly developed cognitive skills, no matter the intelligence level
- Weak verbal skills
- Difficulty understanding symbolic and abstract thinking
- They often do their best when undergoing tasks that involve immediate memory or visual skills
- Having almost super-human abilities, particularly in math, art, music and memory (like in the movie Rain Man)
Understanding children on the spectrum isn’t something that is going to happen overnight, but hopefully this article has shed some light on the subject.
Photo Credit: freedigitalphotos.net, David Castillo Dominici