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What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Where science & compassion meet the challenge of autism.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that affects an individual's ability to communicate (e.g., the ability to use language to express one's needs) and the ability to engage in social interaction (e.g., the ability to engage in joint attention). Additionally, the individual may have a restricted range of interests or repetitive behavior. Skill deficits and challenges associated with ASD will vary greatly from child to child. No two children with autism are the same. Each will have his/her own individual strengths and challenges associated with autism.

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How is ASD diagnosed?

Autism is diagnosed by looking at a child's behavior. Clinicians look at what the child is not doing enough of (e.g., speaking) and what they are doing too much of (e.g., repetitive behavior). There are several well-known diagnostic tools that are used to diagnose or confirm a diagnosis of autism. For example, The Autism Diagnostic Observation Scale (ADOS) and the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS-2).

In addition, The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) provides standardized criteria to help diagnose ASD. The challenge is that each individual with an ASD diagnosis may have more or less of a challenge in each specific area, making their diagnosis unique compared to another individual with ASD.

Although you are likely familiar with the diagnostic criteria, we will list the broad criteria for you below. Please review the DSM-5 or speak to your child's developmental pediatrician for more details in each area for further information.

  1. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts.
  2. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history.
  3. Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifested until social demands exceed limited capacities, or may be masked by learned strategies in later life).
  4. Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.

Autism is considered to be a spectrum disorder because some individuals may have autism with cognitive limitations, while others are only mildly affected by autism. Although ASD is a life-long disability, many individuals show significant progress with treatment, and have the ability to independently participate in learning, social, and community activities with typically developing peers (e.g., attend typical learning environments). For some individuals with autism, early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) can result in growth and learning so that, eventually, the individual no longer meets the criteria for autism.

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Autism Facts

  • ASD is 4 times more common in males than females.
  • As of 2016, ASD affects 1 in 68 children. 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls.
  • Autism is found throughout the world and amongst all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • The cause of autism is unknown.
  • Individuals with ASD have a normal life span.
  • ASD runs in families. The level of impairment can vary significantly between family members.
  • If a family has a child with ASD, there is a 3% chance that the second child will also have ASD.

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The Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the most commonly cited and best researched intervention for individuals with ASD and other developmental delays.

Ivar Lovaas demonstrated that the application of behavior analysis, in the form of an intensive and comprehensive intervention program for children with autism, resulted in significant educational gains.

Lovaas demonstrated that children who received 2-3 years of intensive ABA therapy (approximately 40 hours a week), gained at least 30 IQ points and required less restrictive school placements.

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