Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder that affects the way the brain functions. Researchers have found that the brain development of children with ASD differs from that of typical children, though there is likely no single cause for this. It is suspected that genetic factors put a child at risk for ASD, and non-genetic factors in the environment also influence this abnormal brain development.
As of now, there is no medical test for ASD and the symptoms and severity vary across individuals. Some children show signs of impairments from birth. Others appear to be developing normally and then regress in their social and communication skills at around 1-1/2 to 3 years of age. Symptoms may improve somewhat, especially with treatment and maturity, but this is a disorder that persists throughout life.
Symptoms of ASD
Certain symptoms are common in children with ASD, however not every child demonstrates all of the symptoms or the same level of severity. Current diagnostic criteria (DSM-5, 2013) focus on social communication impairments and restricted repetitive behavior. In addition, individuals with ASD may be identified with intellectual impairment and/or language impairment. A medical or genetic condition (such as premature birth, Fragile X or epilepsy) may be present. Another neurodevelopmental, mental or behavioral disorder (such as decreased motor coordination, difficulty sleeping or attention deficit disorder) may also be associated with ASD.
Common communication, social and behavioral symptoms are listed below:
- Limited speech/language development, or loss of words previously used
- Difficulty expressing needs and wants
- Problems following directions or understanding questions
- Difficulty understanding figurative language/idioms
- Abnormal pitch or intonation patterns of speech
- Repeating what is said to them (echolalia) or repetitive use of certain words/phrases
- Decreased eye contact, smiling or other social responses
- Intense focus on a limited set of interests
- Lack of typical play skills
- Difficulty making friends
- Display of emotions inappropriate to the context
- A dislike of being touched or held
- Trouble understanding others’ feelings
- Resistance to changes in routine
- Repetitive behaviors/actions
- Over- or under-sensitivity to sensory stimuli (e.g., sounds, lights, touch)
Assessing and Treating ASD
Early identification and treatment are very important with autism spectrum disorders. If there are concerns about a child’s development, the first step is to consult with a doctor. If the doctor suspects ASD, he can refer the child for a more thorough evaluation by a team of professionals that may include a psychologist, neurologist, occupational therapist, or others. The Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) is an important part of this team because so many ASD symptoms are related to communication and social skills. The SLP may complete speech, language, and cognitive testing as well as behavioral observations and a hearing screen. She will also interview parents to gain a complete history and information about the child’s communication, social skills, and behavior.
The SLP’s treatment plan will be individualized to the client’s needs. The treatments will play off the client’s strengths to help improve on their areas of weakness. Methods for treatment can vary from highly structured to child-led depending on what works for the individual. The SLP will also educate families about the disorder, how best to communicate with the child, and how to manage behavior issues.