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April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. What Does it Mean to be “On the Spectrum?”

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Approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). To help spread awareness and support advocacy for this often misunderstood condition, on April 2, we recognize World Autism Awareness Day. To help do our part to strengthen understanding and acceptance for all those children, teenagers, and adults living with ASD, we share the information below to help explain what it means when someone says their son or daughter is “on the spectrum.”

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

ASD refers to a wide range of conditions characterized by difficulties with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.

Why is Autism Known as a “Spectrum Disorder?”

Individuals diagnosed with ASD experience a wide variation in the severity and manifestation of their symptoms. Some individuals are highly functioning but may exhibit some social behavior challenges, positioning them at the lower end of the behavioral spectrum. At the opposite end are those who suffer from more complex behavioral difficulties. Such individuals may have limited speech or cognitive processing capabilities. In the middle of the spectrum, from the highest functioning, lowest symptomatic cases to those with the most complex challenges is a broad scope of millions of people with varying levels of behavioral, speech, and social condition complications.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of ASD?

A physician or trained mental health care provider will look to assess a variety of a child’s behaviors, cognitive processing abilities, and social understanding to determine if he or she has ASD. What follows are just some of the actions observed in those with ASD. Again, with it being a spectrum disorder, some individuals may not show all the behaviors listed below, while others may exhibit many of them.

Social Challenges:

  • Making infrequent or inconsistent eye contact
  • Struggling to listen to or look at others
  • Difficulty following conversations
  • Being slow to respond to verbal cues, including hearing their name
  • Rarely sharing enjoyment through demonstration
  • A desire to speak at length about a topic without noticing others are not participating or engaged in the conversation
  • Showcasing facial expressions or gestures that do not align with dialog
  • Either a flat or sing-song voice tone
  • Difficulty understanding the opinions or perceptions of others, or an inability to predict others’ actions

Possible Repetitive Behaviors or Other Challenges:

  • Echolalia, a behavior marked by repeating words or phrases
  • A lasting interest in specific topics such as individual facts, details, or numbers
  • Focused attention on moving objects or specific object components
  • Irritation at a change in routine
  • Extreme sensitivity to sensory input, including noises, light, temperature, or clothing
  • Sleep difficulty
  • Irritability

While those living with ASD may face some of the challenges listed above, many are exceptionally gifted in art, music, science, and math, are keen auditory and visual learners, and can remember detailed information for long periods.

Who is Most Likely to be Born with ASD?

While doctors and researchers are still studying the causes and risk factors for ASD, current research suggests that a combination of genetic and environmental factors may affect ASD development. Other believed risk factors include:

  • A sibling with ASD
  • Being born the child of older parents
  • Genetic conditions such as fragile X syndrome, Rett syndrome, and Down syndrome
  • Low birth weight

ASD Treatment and Therapy

While ASD is not curable, those born with ASD can receive therapy and treatment to help them manage their symptoms and excel academically, socially, and personally. Treatment options for ASD include medication or behavioral, psychological, and educational therapy.

When to Get Help for Your Child

If you believe that your son or daughter may have ASD, talk to your doctor. He or she can help assess if your child has an autism spectrum disorder and can help devise a treatment plan to help your child cope with difficulties and excel at his/her strengths.

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