What is Autism?
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a “group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) changed the way we define autism. In the past, a child could be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, Autistic Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), or Autism Spectrum Disorder. DSM-5 did away with all of those diagnoses and replaced them with Autism Spectrum Disorder Level 1, 2, or 3. Other classifiers may exist with ASD as well. Research agrees that the new classification of ASD is more accurate; however, there are professionals who argue that better definitions and diagnosis qualifications are needed.
Early Signs of ASD
Some early signs of autism spectrum disorders may include:
- sleep disturbance
- feeding problems
- lack of eye contact
- lack of joint attention
- unusual fixations on a particular toy or object
- staging toys rather than playing with them
- lack of social interaction
- inability to relate to others
While this is not a complete list, or grounds for diagnosis, it is a basic list of the most common early signs of autism spectrum disorders. Identified signs should be followed up with a qualified medical professional who can accurately diagnose or rule out autism spectrum disorders.
ASD is highly misunderstood. From causes to cures and everything in between, the internet is full of information that is part truth mixed with fantasy. Here are just a few misconceptions of note.
- Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism spectrum disorders. While there are many people who hold this idea as absolute truth, the reality is that there have been no studies showing a link between MMR and ASD. For more information, see the blog post on vaccines and ASD.
- Certain diets, such as gluten-free, can cure ASD. While certain diets can certainly improve the quality of life for someone with ASD, there have been no documented cases or studies showing that any diet has cured someone of ASD.
- Individuals with ASD cannot learn, or properly take care of themselves. No two people with ASD are alike. While some individuals with ASD might have severe limitations in language and everyday skills, others might be the opposite. Individuals with ASD do lack social communication skills and the ability to connect with others around them; however, skill level varies for individuals on the spectrum. There are plenty of people with ASD that can hold jobs and communicate with others. They may still need some help in adulthood, but not all require around the clock care.
For more misconceptions or information, check the source material used for this page.
Sicile-Kira, C. (2014). Autism spectrum disorder: the complete guide to understanding autism. New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
“Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development” (National Institute of Mental Health). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), classifies inattention as :
- Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, at work, or with other activities.
- Often has trouble holding attention on tasks or play activities.
- Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.
- Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (e.g. looses focus, sidetracked).
- Often has trouble organizing tasks and activities.
- Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to do tasks that require mental effort over a ling period of time (such as schoolwork or homework).
- Often loses things necessary for tasks and activities (e.g. school materials, pencils, books, tools, wallets, keys, eyeglasses, mobile telephones).
- Is often easily distracted
- Is often forgetful in daily activities.
DSM-5 classifies hyperactivity as:
- Often fidgets with or taps hands or feet, or squirms in seat.
- Often leaves seat in situations when remaining in seat is expected.
- Often runs about or climbs in situations where it is not appropriate (adolescents or adults may be limited to feeling restless).
- Often unable to play or take part in leisure activities quietly.
- Is often “on the go” acting as if “driven by a motor.”
- Often talks excessively.
- Often blurts out an answer before a question has been completed.
- Often has trouble waiting his/her turn.
- Often interrupts or intrudes on others.
ADHD can be primarily inattention based, hyperactive based, or both. It is more than the occasional rambunctious actions of children and youth; ADHD effects all activities of daily life. Students with ADHD may have trouble with handwriting, recognizing complex ideas, and organizing and expressing thoughts. For more information, visit CDC.gov .
There are a variety of communication disorders. Disorders of articulation and phonology, aphasia (Wernicke’s and Broca’s), apraxia of speech, language impairment, hearing loss and voice disorders are just a small sample of the different language disorders that exist. The American Psychiatric Association lists language disorder, speech sound disorder, childhood-onset fluency disorder, social (pragmatic) communication disorder, and unspecified communication disorder as subcategories of communication and language disorders. In simpler terms, communication disorders involve:
- Speech: problems with speech sounds, fluency, or voice
- Language: problems with expressing oneself or problems understanding others.
If you would like to know more about a particular communication disorder, please visit the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association at asha.org, or stay tuned to the blog for future posts highlighting different disorders.
The U.S. Department of Education (2006) defines specific learning disability as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantages.” Others define learning disabilities (LD) in simpler terms, saying “learning disabilities are disorders that affect the ability to understand or use spoken or written language, do mathematical calculations, coordinate movements, or direct attention. Although learning disabilities occur in very young children, the disorders are usually not recognized until the child reaches school age” (National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, 2007).
There are two main classifications of learning disabilities; reading disabilities, and mathematics disabilities. As the names imply, reading disabilities involve difficulties in reading, comprehension, and writing, and mathematics disabilities involve difficulties in mathematics calculations and facts. Mathematics disabilities are more rare than reading disabilities. Many people who have reading disabilities also struggle with mathematics (e.g., reading and understanding word problems); however, the same cannot be said for the reciprocal.
Learning disabilities can often co-exist with other developmental disabilities–such as autism spectrum disorder or communication disorders. Since learning disabilities primarily involve academic tasks, diagnosis typically won’t happen until around third grade. More information on learning disabilities will posted to the blog as content is created.
Developmental Coordination Disorder
This disorder involves delays in motor milestones and is characterized by impairments in gross and fine motor skills. A child might have difficulty using common household or classroom objects (e.g., scissors, eating utensils, writing instruments) or playing physical games. Other terms to describe this disorder are childhood dyspraxia, specific developmental disorder of motor function, and clumsy child syndrome.
Stereotypic Movement Disorder
Characterized by “repetitive, seemingly driven, and apparently purposeless motor behavior (e.g., hand shaking or waving, body rocking, head banging, self-biting, hitting own body)” (DSM 5, 2013, p.77). Many people associate this disorder as part of lower-functioning autism spectrum disorder. While it may co-occur with autism spectrum disorder, another disability, or medical condition, it is its own disability and may occur independently.
Tourette’s Disorder, Persistent (Chronic) Motor or Vocal Tic Disorder, and Provisional Tic Disorder all fall under this category. Tics are sudden, rapid, recurrent, and nonrhythmic movements in motor function and/or vocalizations. Diagnosis is based on “presence of motor and/or vocal tics, duration of tic symptoms, age at onset, and absence of any know cause such as another medical condition or substance use” (DSM 5, 2013, p.81). The disorders are hierarchical, meaning Tourette’s Disorder is examined and ruled out first, then Persistent (Chronic) Motor or Vocal Tic Disorder, etc. For more information, visit the blog post on Tourette’s Disorder and future blog posts.