What is Autism? Definition & Impact

Understanding Autism Spectrum

To fully comprehend the complexities of autism, it's crucial to start at the beginning and understand what autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is and the characteristics that define it.

Definition of Autism Spectrum

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability resulting from variances in the brain. It has been observed to affect roughly 1 in 100 people and can be diagnosed in both children and adults. This neuro-developmental disorder often manifests in communication impairment or difficulty in social skills and interaction. However, it's important to note that autistic individuals can still live independent, healthy, and productive lives with therapy and professional intervention.

ASD is a condition related to brain development that affects how a person perceives and socializes with others, leading to difficulties in social interaction and communication. The term "spectrum" in autism spectrum disorder refers to a wide range of symptoms and severity, encompassing social, communication, and behavioral challenges that can vary in severity from mild to severe.

Characteristics of Autism Spectrum

People with ASD often have problems with social communication and interaction, and exhibit restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests [3]. Some of the common characteristics related to ASD include:

  1. Social Communication and Interaction: Individuals with ASD may struggle with various social communication and interaction skills. This can range from difficulty understanding and responding to social cues to challenges in maintaining and understanding relationships.
  2. Restricted or Repetitive Behaviors: People with ASD often engage in repetitive behaviors or show unusual interests. These behaviors and interests set ASD apart from conditions defined by problems with social communication and interaction only.
  3. Additional Characteristics: Most people with ASD have other related characteristics, and it's important to note that children with ASD may not have all or any of the behaviors listed as examples here.

While these are some of the common characteristics, it's important to remember that each individual with ASD is unique and may display different combinations of behaviors and degrees of severity. The diagnosis is often determined by the level of support needed, emphasizing the importance of early diagnosis for prompt treatment [4].

Diagnosing Autism Spectrum

Recognizing the signs of autism and seeking timely diagnosis is crucial in ensuring effective intervention and support. This section provides an overview of the process of early detection and the diagnostic criteria for autism.

Early Detection of Autism

Early screening and detection of autism play a pivotal role in ensuring more effective intervention. Parents are often the first to notice any developmental delays or differences in social interaction that may indicate autism.

Parents have two options to pursue a diagnostic assessment for autism in children:

  1. Making an appointment with a family doctor or pediatrician
  2. Accessing the Ontario Autism Program for a diagnosis before the age of 18 through the diagnostic hub or Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services Regional Office.

It's important to note that Autism Ontario does not provide diagnosis services but offers resources to guide individuals in finding qualified providers for diagnosis [5].

Diagnostic Criteria for Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder is diagnosed based on a combination of specific behaviors, communication delays, and/or developmental disabilities, rather than just one factor or symptom.

Autism spectrum disorders encompass social, communication, and behavioral challenges that can vary in severity from mild to severe. Diagnosis is determined by the level of support needed, emphasizing the importance of early diagnosis for prompt treatment.

Broadly, the diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder can be grouped into two categories:

  1. Deficits in social communication and social interaction: This includes difficulties with social-emotional reciprocity, nonverbal communication behaviors, and maintaining and understanding relationships.
  2. Restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities: These can manifest as stereotyped or repetitive movements, insistence on sameness or inflexible adherence to routines, highly restricted and fixated interests, and hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input.

Understanding the diagnostic criteria for autism can help parents and caregivers identify the signs early and seek the necessary support and intervention. Early diagnosis and intervention can significantly improve the quality of life for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Types of Autism Disorders

In understanding 'what is autism?', it's crucial to realize that this condition is not a single disorder but a spectrum of related conditions. There are several types of autism disorders, each with unique characteristics and manifestations. This section will discuss three of them: Kanner's Syndrome, Asperger's Syndrome, and Rett Syndrome.

Kanner's Syndrome

Kanner's Syndrome, originally labeled "infantile autism," is now more commonly identified as autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This is the most recognized form of autism, occurring in an estimated 1 in 44 children. The disorder is characterized by significant social, communicative, and behavioral challenges.

Children with Kanner's Syndrome often exhibit repetitive behaviors and have difficulty with social interactions. They may also have unique patterns of behavior and intense focus on specific interests. It's essential for parents and caregivers to understand these characteristics to provide effective support for children with Kanner's Syndrome [6].

Asperger's Syndrome

Asperger's Syndrome was reclassified into the broader category of ASD with the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V). However, it still maintains a unique relationship with autism. The disorder is occasionally diagnosed to signify a subtype of less-severe ASD.

Compared to other forms of ASD, individuals with Asperger's Syndrome often have fewer difficulties with language but may still struggle with social interactions. They may also display intense interest in specific subjects and exhibit repetitive behaviors. Recognizing these behaviors can help parents and caregivers better understand and support individuals with Asperger's Syndrome.

Rett Syndrome

Rett Syndrome is a neurodevelopmental disorder that predominantly affects girls. This disorder was once categorized under the ASD umbrella but was removed with the publication of the DSM-V and is no longer considered a developmental disorder within ASD.

Rett Syndrome is characterized by normal early growth and development followed by a slowing of development, loss of purposeful use of the hands, distinctive hand movements, slowed brain and head growth, and problems with walking, seizures, and intellectual disability.

While Rett Syndrome shares some similarities with ASD, it is now recognized as a distinct disorder. Understanding the unique characteristics of Rett Syndrome can help parents and caregivers provide targeted support and care for children with this condition [6].

Diagnosis and Support for Adults

While autism is commonly diagnosed in childhood, it's crucial to note that adults can also be diagnosed with the condition. This can happen if an individual did not display apparent signs in early life or if they were mistakenly diagnosed with another condition.

Assessing Adults for Autism

Assessments for autism in adulthood are increasing due to expanding diagnostic criteria and raised awareness. The most common reasons for seeking diagnosis and support in adults are difficulties with social interaction and mental health.

There are currently no autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnostic criteria specifically for adults, but the current DSM-5 criteria can be adapted and used for this age group [7]. Assessments are typically carried out by clinicians who diagnose adults with ASD through a series of in-person observations and interactions.

There are no medical tests for ASD, no matter your age. ASD is diagnosed based on reviews of behaviors, in-person visits where the doctor asks questions and evaluates responses, and considering self-reported symptoms. Many psychologists use the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition (ADOS-2) when assessing adults.

Benefits of Adult Diagnosis

Receiving a diagnosis of ASD as an adult can be empowering and aid in self-understanding. It can provide a new perspective on one's childhood and help in strengthening areas of life that are impacted by the condition.

Once an adult has been diagnosed with ASD, they can access various support options such as therapy, medication, vocational rehabilitation, and support groups. These resources can play a crucial role in helping adults with autism navigate their daily lives and enhance their wellbeing.

Remember, Autism Ontario does not provide diagnosis services but offers resources to guide individuals in finding qualified providers for diagnosis [5].

Understanding what is autism and seeking professional help when needed can be the first step towards leading a fulfilling life, regardless of one's age. It's never too late to seek support and improve one's quality of life.

Treatment Approaches for Autism

When it comes to managing autism, there are several treatment approaches available. These therapies are designed to help individuals with autism enhance their communication skills, improve their behavior, and increase their ability to perform daily activities. Let's delve into some popular treatment approaches, namely behavioral therapy, speech and language therapy, and occupational therapy.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral approaches are widely accepted among educators and healthcare professionals for treating symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Among these, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a leading method, known for its evidence-based results.

ABA involves observing and analyzing individuals with ASD in order to understand their behavior and learning patterns. The therapy focuses on improving specific behaviors, such as social skills, communication, reading, and academics, as well as adaptive learning skills, such as fine motor dexterity, hygiene, grooming, domestic capabilities, punctuality, and job competence.

Another behavioral approach is the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM). This broad developmental approach is based on the principles of ABA and is used with children aged 12-48 months. It aims to improve language, social, and learning skills through play, social exchanges, and shared attention in natural settings.

Speech and Language Therapy

Speech and Language Therapy is a common developmental therapy for individuals with ASD. This therapy aims to improve the person’s understanding and use of speech and language.

The therapy can involve various communication methods, including verbal communication, signs, gestures, pictures, or electronic devices. The specific techniques used can vary depending on the individual's needs and abilities.

The goal of Speech and Language Therapy is to help individuals with ASD to better express their needs, wants, and emotions, and to understand the verbal and non-verbal communication of others.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational Therapy focuses on teaching individuals with ASD the skills needed to live as independently as possible. This includes skills related to dressing, eating, bathing, and social interaction.

The therapy is designed to foster the development of fine motor skills, perceptual skills, visual motor integration, and hand-eye coordination. It also involves the use of the Early Start Denver Model for younger children.

It's important to note that the effectiveness of these therapies can vary from person to person. Therefore, it's crucial to work closely with healthcare professionals to identify the most appropriate treatment approach for each individual with autism. By doing so, individuals with autism can be supported in reaching their full potential.

Living with Autism Spectrum

Understanding 'what is autism?' is just the first step in a long journey for parents of children with autism. Living with autism spectrum disorders involves navigating challenges and impacts that manifest in various aspects of life. This section focuses on the difficulties encountered and the strategies to support those diagnosed with autism.

Challenges and Impact

Autism spectrum disorders, as highlighted by WebMD, encompass social, communication, and behavioral challenges that can vary in severity from mild to severe. This range of symptoms and severity, as described by Mayo Clinic, is why the term "spectrum" is used.

Children with autism may display a range of symptoms and levels of severity. Some may have difficulty learning or exhibit signs of lower intelligence, while others may have normal to high intelligence but face challenges in communication, social interaction, and applying knowledge in daily life.

These challenges can subsequently lead to difficulties in social functioning, education, and work. This impact can be felt not just by the individual with autism, but also their family, educators, and caregivers.

Strategies for Support

While there is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, early and intensive treatment can significantly impact the lives of many children with the condition [2].

Support strategies for children with autism can vary based on the severity of their symptoms and the specific challenges they face. However, some general strategies include:

  • Personalized Learning Plans: Tailoring education to meet a child's unique learning needs can help them succeed acadically.
  • Therapy: Various forms of therapy, including behavioral, speech and language, and occupational therapy, can help children with autism improve their social and communication skills.
  • Support Groups: Connecting with other families who are also navigating autism can offer emotional support and practical advice.

For parents in New York and New Jersey, there are various resources available to support children with autism. Local schools, healthcare providers, and autism organizations can provide valuable guidance and assistance.


[1]: https://www.onecentralhealth.com.au/autism/10-myths-about-autism/

[2]: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/autism-spectrum-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20352928

[3]: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html

[4]: https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/autism-spectrum-disorders

[5]: https://www.autismontario.com/about-autism/getting-diagnosis

[6]: https://spectrumofhope.com/blog/5-different-types-of-autism/

[7]: https://www.healthline.com/health/autism-in-adults

[8]: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/treatment.html

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