Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a neurodevelopment disorder that is characterized by difficulties with social communication and social interaction and restricted and repetitive patterns in behaviors, interests, and activities. By definition, the symptoms are present early on in development and affect daily functioning. The term ‘spectrum’ is used because of the heterogeneity in the presentation and severity of ASD symptoms, as well as in the skills and level of functioning of individuals who have ASD. See the full criteria for ASD from the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.
ASD occurs in all racial and ethnic groups, and across every socioeconomic status level. Boys are about four times more likely to have ASD than girls. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is estimated that 1 in 59 children in the United States meets criteria for ASD. Because it is hoped that early intervention can change the course of ASD, immediate response in terms of provision of treatment is critical when there are early concerns (even under 24 months).
The diagnosis of ASD is based on diagnostic evaluations that often involve a team including a physician and a psychologist, and may include other disciplines such as speech and language pathology or occupational therapy. The evaluation should include standardized observations of the individual, assessments of his/her learning and cognitive abilities, and interviews to gather information about behavior across multiple settings and her/his medical and developmental history.
Learn about the early signs of ASD and the diagnosis process in children and adults.
There are a number of behavioral treatments for ASD that have been shown to change cognitive level (e.g. IQ), specific skills (e.g. vocabulary, social skills, and joint attention) and behavioral and challenges and mood, though comparative data contrasting different treatments are not available. Medications have been shown to reduce behavioral challenges and mood. There is much interest in identifying treatments that change the core features of ASD. The most well-established treatments used applied behavior analytic techniques, which have typically become more natural, developmental in sequence and more flexible. Recently, parent-mediated treatments, group models and combined treatments (medical and behavioral) are being developed and tested. Involvement of the family in treatment has consistently improved outcomes.
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Volkmar, F. R., Paul, R., Rogers, S. J., and Pelphrey, K. A. (Eds.). (2014). Handbook of autism and pervasive developmental disorders: Diagnosis, development, and brain mechanisms (Vol. I). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons
Handleman, J. S., & Harris, S. L. (Eds.). (2006). School-age education programs for children with autism. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.
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Lord, C., Elsabbagh, M., Baird, G., Veenstra-VanderWeele, J., (2018). Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Lancet, 392, 508-520. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31129-2
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5. Washington, DC: Publisher.