April 8, 2010

Autism: Do You Know the Signs?

April is Autism Awareness Month and April 2nd is National Autism Day

Autism affects an estimated 1 in 110 children and is more prevalent than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes, and pediatric AIDS combined. You've heard of autism, but how much do you really know about the symptoms and signs associated with autism and autism spectrum disorders?

I studied Autism in college while getting my degree in early childhood education. Our program included cross-training in special education. I worked with one child who was diagnosed with autism and was one year old while in a practicum in my program. But I still do not know as much about autism as I need to, so I researched what exactly the autism spectrum is, what signs to look for in children that I may work with and I'm sharing it with you in order to raise awareness for these children.

What Exactly is Autism?
from the CDC

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. People with ASDs handle information in their brain differently than other people.

ASDs are “spectrum disorders.” That means ASDs affect each person in different ways, and can range from very mild to severe. People with ASDs share some similar symptoms, such as problems with social interaction. But there are differences in when the symptoms start, how severe they are, and the exact nature of the symptoms.

There are three different types of ASDs:

  • Autistic Disorder (also called “classic” autism)
    This is what most people think of when hearing the word “autism.” People with autistic disorder usually have significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviors and interests. Many people with autistic disorder also have intellectual disability.
  • Asperger Syndrome
    People with Asperger syndrome usually have some milder symptoms of autistic disorder. They might have social challenges and unusual behaviors and interests. However, they typically do not have problems with language or intellectual disability.
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS; also called “atypical autism”)
    People who meet some of the criteria for autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome, but not all, may be diagnosed with PDD-NOS. People with PDD-NOS usually have fewer and milder symptoms than those with autistic disorder. The symptoms might cause only social and communication challenges.
How Prevalent is Autism?
The Autism Society of America says:
Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and other governmental agencies, autism is growing at a startling rate of 10-17 percent per year. At this rate, the Autism Society estimates that the prevalence of autism could reach 4 million Americans in the next decade.

Autism knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries; family income levels; lifestyle choices; or educational levels, and can affect any family and any child.

And although the overall incidence of autism is consistent around the globe, it is four times more prevalent in boys than in girls.

Know the Signs: Early Identification Can Change Lives
via Autism Society of America

Autism is treatable. Children do not "outgrow" autism, but studies show that early diagnosis and intervention lead to significantly improved outcomes.

Here are some signs to look for in the children in your life:

  • Lack of or delay in spoken language
  • Repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms (e.g., hand-flapping, twirling objects)
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Lack of interest in peer relationships
  • Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play
  • Persistent fixation on parts of objects

    Having any of these symptoms does not mean your child has autism. But because the characteristics of the disorder vary so much, a child showing these behaviors should have further evaluations by a multidisciplinary team. This team may include a neurologist, psychologist, developmental pediatrician, speech/language therapist, learning consultant, or other professionals knowledgeable about autism.

The hallmark feature of ASD is impaired social interaction


A child’s primary caregivers are usually the first to notice signs of ASD. As early as infancy, a baby with ASD may be unresponsive to people or focus intently on one item to the exclusion of others for long periods of time. A child with ASD may appear to develop normally and then withdraw and become indifferent to social engagement.

Children with ASD may fail to respond to their names and often avoid eye contact with other people. They have difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling because they can’t understand social cues, such as tone of voice or facial expressions, and don’t watch other people’s faces for clues about appropriate behavior. They lack empathy.

Many children with ASD engage in repetitive movements such as rocking and twirling, or in self-abusive behavior such as biting or head-banging. They also tend to start speaking later than other children and may refer to themselves by name instead of “I” or “me.” Children with ASD don’t know how to play interactively with other children. Some speak in a sing-song voice about a narrow range of favorite topics, with little regard for the interests of the person to whom they are speaking.

What About Asperger's Syndrome?

via Autism Society of America

What distinguishes Asperger's Disorder from Autism Disorder is the severity of the symptoms and the absence of language delays. Children with Asperger's Disorder may be only mildly affected and frequently have good language and cognitive skills. To the untrained observer, a child with Asperger's Disorder may just seem like a normal child behaving differently.

Children with autism are frequently seen as aloof and uninterested in others. This is not the case with Asperger's Disorder. Individuals with Asperger's Disorder usually want to fit in and have interaction with others; they simply don't know how to do it. They may be socially awkward, not understanding of conventional social rules, or show a lack of empathy. They may have limited eye contact, seem to be unengaged in a conversation, and not understand the use of gestures.

Interests in a particular subject may border on the obsessive. Children with Asperger's Disorder frequently like to collect categories of things, such as rocks or bottle caps. They may be proficient in knowing categories of information, such as baseball statistics or Latin names of flowers. While they may have good rote memory skills, they have difficulty with abstract concepts.

One of the major differences between Asperger's Disorder and autism is that, by definition, there is no speech delay in Asperger's. In fact, children with Asperger's Disorder frequently have good language skills; they simply use language in different ways. Speech patterns may be unusual, lack inflection or have a rhythmic nature, or it may be formal, but too loud or high pitched. Children with Asperger's Disorder may not understand the subtleties of language, such as irony and humor, or they may not understand the give-and- take nature of a conversation.

Another distinction between Asperger's Disorder and autism concerns cognitive ability. While some individuals with autism experience mental retardation, by definition a person with Asperger's Disorder cannot possess a "clinically significant" cognitive delay and most possess average to above average intelligence.

While motor difficulties are not a specific criteria for Asperger's, children with Asperger's Disorder frequently have motor skill delays and may appear clumsy or awkward.

Throughout the month of April, I will be contributing to Autism Awareness with book reviews, informative posts, and an interview or two. If you'd like to participate in the Autism Awareness Challenge, visit Page Turners here.

Where Can I Learn More About Life with Autism and Asperger's Syndrome?

If you would like to learn more about how Autism affects the daily lives of those who are touched by it, please visit the links below:

Everyday Adventures: 1 in 94 boys are on the autism spectrum...3 of them are ours.

Spectrum Siblings: Autistic college student and ABA Therapist on how to thrive on the autism spectrum.

*If you write or contribute to a blog that features life with autism and you would like to be listed here, please contact me.


  1. Another one you might want to check out is Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin. Temple is a woman with Asperger Syndrome that has helped to revolutionize the livestock industry. It's definitely interesting to read things from her perspective. Great entry! Very informative!!

  2. My best friend's daughter is on the autism spectrum. She has a lot of trouble with eye contact especially. But they've been working with her and have her on a special diet, so that usually it is not too obvious.

  3. Awesome post! Thank you so much for writing about autism. There was a time in my life when I had no clue about it but then I happened to work with parents of autistic children and since then I care about this issue a lot especially that the odds of having a child on the autism spectrum are so big. And the children are absolutely wonderful BTW we just need to want to get to know them.

  4. There's a new film about Temple Grandin's life that's on HBO right now. Check it out if you get a chance. I think they did a really wonderful job with it.

  5. brichtabooks, Avid Reader- Thanks! I definitely need to check her out.

    Lenore- I do wonder how the special diets work to help with symptoms.

    Lilly- Yes, they are wonderful children. I think people tend to shy away from what they don't understand, but if we just give ourselves the chance to understand and get to know them, they absolutely do rock. :)


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