Autism: A Spectrum Disorder With Varied Individual Characteristics
Autism, as defined by the Autism Society of America, is a complex and lifelong developmental disability that appears early in childhood and affects the individual’s social and communication skills, self-regulatory behaviors, and relationships. The characteristics of autism and the intensity of symptoms can vary depending on the individual. Therefore, autism is referred to as a “spectrum disorder.” The first signs of autism generally emerge between 24 and 36 months of age, and there is no single-known cause of the disability.
Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are general terms used for grouping complex disorders affecting brain development. These developmental disorders are characterized in degrees by the severity of the below indicators:
- Social interaction difficulties
- Nonverbal and verbal communication difficulties
- Repetitive behaviors
Developmental disabilities characterized by these disabilities include:
- Rett syndrome
- Autistic disorder
- Pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)
- Childhood disintegrative disorder
- Asperger syndrome
ASD can be associated with the following:
- Difficulties in motor coordination
- Intellectual disability
- Difficulties in attention
- Physical health issues such as GI disturbances and sleep
- Some individuals with ASD excel in particular skills or areas — such as art, math or music
Early Signs of Autism
Early symptoms of autism in babies or toddlers often go unrecognized by parents or caregivers. One of the most important things you can do for your child after birth is to learn the early signs of autism. Recognizing the first signs of autism can lead to an earlier diagnosis and early intervention for children with autism. Research suggests that early intervention leads to the best outcomes for children with autism and a better quality of life. Get familiar with typical developmental milestones your child should be reaching as he or she grows. Use the list below to understand if your child may be showing the first signs of autism.
- Offers no warm or joyful expressions by 6 months old or after
- Doesn’t exchange smiles, sounds and other facial expressions with others by 9 months
- Is not babbling by 12 months
- Doesn’t use nonverbal gestures for showing, pointing, waving or reaching by 12 months
- Speaks no words by 16 months
- Doesn’t form meaningful, two-word phrases by 24 months (not including repeating or imitating)
- Loses babbling, speech or social skills at any age
Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder
The core signs of autism in children are social communication challenges and repetitive or restrictive behaviors. While young children may display these characteristics on occasion, a child with autism will consistently display these charactersitics and they may interfere with his or her daily life. Health care professionals make an autism diagnosis by assessing behaviorsassociated with social communication challenges and repetitive or restrictive behaviors.
Here is a closer look at the characteristics of autism:
Social Characteristics of Autism
- Little or no eye contact
- Resists being comforted, held or touched
- Lacks an understanding of personal space (e.g., gets too close when speaking)
- Responds to social interactions, but does not initiate them
- Does not generally share observations or experiences with others
- Difficulty understanding jokes, figures of speech or sarcasm
- Difficulty reading facial expressions and body language
- Difficulty understanding the rules of conversation (e.g., makes spontaneous comments, disconnected remarks or interrupts)
- Difficulty understanding group interactions
- Aversion to answering questions about themselves
- Makes honest, but inappropriate, observations
- Seems unable to understand another’s feelings
- Prefers to be alone or aloft, or is overly friendly
- Difficulty making friends or maintaining friendships
- Finds it easier to socialize with people who are older or younger, rather than peers of their age
- Disengaged with surrounding activity or people
- Talks excessively about one or two topics (e.g., dinosaurs, movies, etc.)
- Overly trusting or unable to read motives or intentions
Language Use and Development Characteristics
- Abnormal use of pitch, intonation, rhythm or stress while speaking (e.g., using a sing-song or robotic voice)
- Speaks abnormally loud or quiet
- Has difficulty whispering
- Repeats last words or phrases several times or answers questions by repeating the question
- Makes verbal sounds while listening (echolalia)
- Often uses short, incomplete sentences
- Pronouns are often inappropriately used (e.g., using “I” instead of “you”)
- May have an expansive vocabulary
- Uses a person’s name excessively when speaking to him or her (e.g., “Mary, we’re having lunch. Right, Mary?”)
- Speech started early and then stopped for a period
- Difficulty understanding directional terms, such as front, back, before or after
- Obsessions with objects, ideas or desires
- Ritualistic, repetitive or compulsive behavior patterns (e.g., sniffing, licking, flapping arms, spinning, rocking, humming, tapping)
- Fascination with rotation
- Fascination with many and varied collections of objects
- Quotes movies or video games
- Difficulty transferring skills between tasks or transitioning from one activity to another
- Portrays signs of perfectionism in certain areas
- Unusual or abnormal expression of frustration
- Compulsively fixes, touches or rearranges objects
- Slowed gross motor skills compared to peers (e.g., riding a bike, skating, running)
- Slowed fine motor skills compared to peers (e.g., writing, tying shoes, using scissors)
- Lack of concern for personal hygiene (e.g., brushing hair or teeth, or bathing)
- Inability to perceive potentially dangerous situations
- Extreme fear (phobia) for no apparent reason
- Verbal outbursts or unexpected actions (e.g., running into the street)
- Difficulty understanding or sensing time
- Difficulty taking turns
- Causes injury to self (biting, banging head, slapping)
Sensory or Emotional Signs of Autism in Children
- Sensitivity or lack of sensitivity to sounds, textures (touch), tastes, smells or light
- Difficulty with loud or sudden sounds
- Unusually high or low pain tolerance
- Intolerance to certain food textures, colors or the way they are presented on the plate (one food can’t touch another)
- Inappropriate self-touching in public situations
- Attachment to comfort items (blankets, teddy, rock, string)
- Laughs, cries or throws a tantrum without cause or reason
- Uncomfortable with or resists change in the environment (people, places, objects)
- May have prolonged reactions to emotional incidents (e.g., distraught all day after a morning incident)
- May have extremely brief emotional reactions or rapidly changing emotions
- Becomes overwhelmed with too much verbal direction
- Tunes out or breaks down when reprimanded
- Calmed by external stimulation, such as a soothing sound, skin brushing or gently applied pressure (e.g., rolled in a blanket)
- May need to be left alone to release tension and frustration
- Exceptionally high skills in some areas and very low in others.
- Excellent rote memory in some areas.
- Difficulty with reading comprehension (can quote an answer, but unable to predict, summarize or find symbolism).
- Difficulty with fine motor activities (coloring, printing, scissors, gluing).
- Short attention span for most lessons.
- Resistance or inability to follow directions.
- Difficulty transitioning from one activity to another in school.
Movement Characteristics of Autism
- Walks on toes.
- Unusual gait.
- Difficulty changing from one floor surface to another (carpet to wood, sidewalk to grass).
- Odd or unnatural posture (rigid or floppy).
- Difficulty moving through a space (bumps into objects or people).
- Walks without swinging arms freely.
- Incontinence of bowel and/or bladder.
- Frequent gas (flatulence, burping) or throwing up.
- Appearance of hearing problems, but hearing has been checked and is fine.
- Seizure activity.
- Allergies and food sensitivities.
- Irregular sleep patterns.
- Apparent lack of concern for personal hygiene (hair, teeth, body odors).
Health-Associated Symptoms of Autism in Children
- Incontinence (bowel or bladder) issues, constipation, frequent gas and vomiting
- Allergies and food sensitivities
- Irregular or abnormal sleep patterns
- The appearance of hearing problems, but no signs of hearing abnormalities when tested
Do you suspect your child may have autism? Contact Lighthouse Autism Center for guidance on what to do next.