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Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Asperger's Syndrome

Posted on 1 January 1970


The term 'Autism' refers to a range of similar conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, verbal/non-verbal communication as well as unique strengths and differences. Autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently to other people. If you are autistic, you are autistic for life; it cannot be 'cured'. However, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, educational support, plus a number of other interventions are available to help children and parents. The exact cause of autism is still being investigated.

Research into causes suggests that a combination of factors - genetic and environmental - may account for differences in development. Autism is not caused by a person's upbringing, their social circumstances and is not the fault of the individual.

Autism is a spectrum condition. The term "spectrum" refers the wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism. All autistic people share certain difficulties, but the condition will affect them in different ways. Some autistic people may also have learning disabilities, mental health issues or other conditions, meaning people need different levels of support. All people on the autism spectrum learn and develop. With the right sort of support, all can be helped to live a more fulfilling life.

Signs and Symptoms

The timing and severity of autism's first symptoms can vary widely. Some children with autism show hints of future problems within the first few months of life. In others, symptoms may not become obvious until 24 months or later. Some children with autism appear to develop normally until around 18 to 24 months of age and then stop gaining new skills and/or start losing skills.

In order for a diagnosis to be made, a person will usually be assessed as having had persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction. For example, they may find it hard to begin or carry on a conversation, they may not understand social rules such as how far to stand from somebody else, or they may find it difficult to make friends. They will also be assessed as having restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests since early childhood, to the extent that these "limit and impair everyday functioning". For example, they may develop an overwhelming interest in something, they may follow inflexible routines or rituals, they may make repetitive body movements, or they may be hypersensitive to certain sounds.

Possible signs of autism in babies and toddlers:

  • By 6 months, no social smiles or other warm, joyful expressions directed at people
  • By 6 months, limited or no eye contact
  • By 9 months, no sharing of vocal sounds, smiles or other nonverbal communication
  • By 12 months, no babbling
  • By 12 months, no use of gestures to communicate (e.g. pointing, reaching, waving etc.)
  • By 12 months, no response to name when called
  • By 16 months, no words
  • By 24 months, no meaningful, two-word phrases
  • Any loss of any previously acquired speech, babbling or social skills

Possible signs of autism at any age:

  • Avoids eye contact and prefers to be alone
  • Struggles with understanding other people's feelings
  • Remains nonverbal or has delayed language development
  • Repeats words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
  • Gets upset by minor changes in routine or surroundings
  • Has highly restricted interests
  • Performs repetitive behaviors such as flapping, rocking or spinning
  • Has unusual and often intense reactions to sounds, smells, tastes, textures, lights and/or colors

It is important to note that many people on the spectrum also have significant strengths. These may include a good eye for detail, a high level of accuracy and reliability, an excellent memory for facts and figures, and the ability to thrive in a structured, well-organised work environment. Some also have considerable creative talent. Because of this, some autistic individuals do not consider autism to be a disability but a neurological difference.

Individuals on the autism spectrum can often have other conditions, such as sensory sensitivity, epilepsy and gastrointestinal problems. They may also have mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Some, but not all, will behave in difficult and challenging ways. Because of these problems, autistic people often struggle to make friends, do well at school, or find appropriate jobs. However, with the right help tailored to the needs of the individual person, some autistic people can lead relatively independent lives. Others will continue to need support and understanding throughout their lives.

Asperger's Syndrome

Asperger Syndrome and high functioning autism (HFA) are often referred to as the same diagnosis. Individuals with HFA and AS have average or above average intelligence but may struggle with issues related to social interaction and communication. It is essential to remember that both AS and HFA do present themselves largely the same way, and as a result may be treated in a similar way. The primary difference is that a diagnosis of HFA requires that, early in development, the child had delayed language whereas in AS, the child did not show a significant delay in language development.

Asperger syndrome was generally considered to be on the "high functioning" end of the spectrum. Affected people have difficulty with social interactions and exhibit a restricted range of interests and/or repetitive behaviours. Motor development may be delayed, leading to clumsiness or uncoordinated motor movements. Compared with those affected by other forms of ASD, however, those with Asperger syndrome do not have significant delays or difficulties in language or cognitive development. Some even demonstrate advanced vocabulary - often in a highly specialized field of interest.

The following behaviors are often associated with Asperger syndrome. However, they are seldom all present in any one individual and vary widely in degree:

  • limited or inappropriate social interactions
  • "robotic" or repetitive speech
  • challenges with nonverbal communication (gestures, facial expression, etc.) coupled with average to above average verbal skills
  • tendency to discuss self rather than others
  • inability to understand social/emotional issues or non-literal phrases
  • lack of eye contact or reciprocal conversation
  • obsession with specific, often unusual, topics
  • one-sided conversations
  • awkward movements and/or mannerisms

How can Child Therapy NI Help?

Child Therapy NI provides a safe psychological distance from a young person's problems and allows expression of thoughts and feelings appropriate to their development. Children with an autism spectrum disorder can benefit from a number of different treatment modalities. Children with autism vary greatly in their symptoms. However, many children with autism may have a rigidity in their behaviours in that they may need things to be a specific way. They may have certain "stimming" behaviours that they participate in that are repetitive behaviours that may serve to calm them, to satisfy a sensory need, or for another purpose. Play therapy can help children with their sensory needs, their sense of calm and security, and can decrease stimming behaviours. Play is a wonderful tool for helping children (and sometimes even adults) to move beyond autism's self-absorption into real, shared interaction. Properly used, play can also allow youngsters to explore their feelings, their environment, and their relationships with parents, siblings, and peers.

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