Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination, attention and health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. Although autism appears to have its roots in very early brain development, the most obvious clinical signs and symptoms of autism tend to emerge between 2 and 3 years of age.
All autism disorders are now merged into one umbrella diagnosis of ASD. Previously, they were recognized as distinct subtypes, including autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome. Early intervention can improve outcomes.
Overview For Parents
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a heterogeneous condition. No two children on the spectrum are alike, and their abilities and needs can differ dramatically.
- Research reveals that changes to an individual’s environment can alter his/her development. This is especially true if these modifications are made early in life, when the brain has the most capacity for change. This capacity, which neuroscientists call ‘plasticity,’ underlies the rationale for early intervention.
- A successful intervention doesn’t have to be limited to a set time with a therapist, but may also involve strategies to help children practice and make use of their skills throughout the day, and in a variety of activites and settings.
- Children with ASD commonly struggle with insomnia that delays the onset of sleep. They also get less rest overall than do typically developing children. Poor sleep can exacerbate some of the classic difficulties of autism, such as being easily excitable, engaging in repetitive behaviors and having trouble with social interactions, communication and attention.
Overview For Clinicians
- Studies suggest that spontaneous deletions or duplications of large chunks of DNA, called copy number variations (CNVs), appear in 2 to 4 percent of children with autism. Some people also have inherited CNVs. These genetic changes also occur in some unaffected siblings. Various other genetic factors, along with environmental ones, help determine whether a CNV leads to autism in any one person.
- More recently, an intriguing finding that children with autism might have less rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep has added to general concerns that a lack of proper sleep may worsen cognitive functioning in people with the disorder. Scientists have begun exploring factors that might cause individuals on the spectrum to stay awake, ranging from psychological issues such as anxiety to a core neurobiological dysfunction in the circadian rhythm.
- Although an estimated 9% of children with autism may no longer have a diagnosis years later, as symptoms can disappear. A new study suggests that nearly all of children who receive an ASD diagnosis may eventually develop related conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression- suggesting that all children who once receive a diagnosis should receive continued care.