What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?
Autism spectrum disorders, often referred to simply with the umbrella term “autism”, or “being on the spectrum”, incorporate disorders previously diagnosed separately – “classic” autism, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not specified (PDD-NOS).
They are developmental disorders linked to early brain development. The causes are not clear, although genetics are believed to play a role as well as environmental factors.
Mental health professionals emphasise that ASD is not a psychological, emotional or behavioural disorder – children with autism are not “just badly behaved” – it is a brain-based, neuro-psychiatric condition that requires treatment and support.
ASD results in difficulties in social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, sensory perception (either heightened or lowered sense of touch, taste, smell, sight or hearing), and patterns of narrow interests, cognitive (thought) patterns and repetitive behaviours
Some of the “red flags” that should be referred to a doctor or child development specialist such as a paediatrician, psychiatrist or psychologist include:
- Little awareness of, or disinterest in others, difficulty in interacting socially, lack of eye contact
- Social interactions predicated mainly on the child’s particular interests
- Distress caused by changes in routine or environment, especially extreme distress for no apparent reason
- Non-typical patterns of play, preferring to play alone, lack of imaginative play, repetitive behaviours or unusual habits such as rocking, flapping hands or constantly spinning objects
- Gross or fine motor skill development that doesn’t match the usual developmental milestones
- Rigid thinking style, that may be without humour
- A dislike of being touched or held, or a sense of touch, taste, smell, sight or hearing that seems extra-sensitive, or less sensitive than usual; may result in very rigid food preferences
- Delayed or non-typical development of speech and language, or the child appearing not to hear
- Diffiuclties holding the perspective of another
Management Strategies for ASD
There is no specific medication for ASD itself, although medication may be prescribed for other conditions that exist alongside ASD, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), epilepsy, anxiety or other neurological conditions. Medication responses in children with ASD may not be typical and this arm of treatment often requires the input of a specialist.
Treatment generally starts with interventions that coach parents and caregivers on how to engage with a child with ASD. Knowing what to expect and how to support a child with ASD and has been found to have positive effects on the child’s social interaction, communication and behaviour.
Because of the differences in symptoms and severity of ASD, a family would usually work with a multi-disciplinary team of professionals to develop a programme best suited to the individual child.
These would typically aim to improve communication, cognitive and social skills, reduce distress for the child/individual and make positive behaviour changes.