Autism spectrum disorder is a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by deficits in socialization and communication. Individuals identified with autism spectrum disorder may have restricted interests, repetitive movements, and be very sensitive to noise, touch, light, smell and taste.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one of every 68 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder, a ten-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years. Studies also show that autism is four to five times more common among boys than girls. An estimated one out of 42 boys and one out of 189 girls are diagnosed with autism in the United States. Almost half (46 percent) of children identified with autism spectrum disorder has average to above-average intellectual ability.
Those with autism spectrum disorder can have cognitive abilities ranging from normal to severe intellectual deficits. A diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder now includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger's syndrome. These conditions are now all called autism spectrum disorder and are specifically labeled from mild to severe.
Some of the increase in diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder can be attributed to a greater understanding of the disorder, and to increased awareness among medical professionals and the public. However, medical research is still exploring what may account for the increased prevalence.
It is important for parents and their doctors to act early to recognize the signs of autism spectrum disorder. Even though the condition can be diagnosed as early as 18 months, most diagnoses come after age 4. In addition to regular developmental screenings at well-child visits, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening specifically for autism spectrum disorder at 18 and 24 months.
Not all children who test positive on screens will ultimately be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, but the written screening test should be followed up with a more comprehensive evaluation and possible further testing.
Autism spectrum disorder is a clinical diagnosis using psychological tests, history from families, observation, and in some cases, genetic testing. The treatment is a team approach involving others beyond a child psychiatrist or pediatrician, including occupational, physical and speech therapists, and a newer field of specialists called applied behavioral analysts.
The website, Autismspeaks.org, is a good resource for families seeking information regarding autism spectrum disorder.