By Stacey Colino
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are a group of complex neurodevelopmental disabilities that affect a child’s social, behavioral, and communication skills. In people with these disorders, their brains handle information differently than most people’s do. These disorders include autistic disorder (or “classic” autism), Asperger’s syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS, for short). Autism lies on the more severe end of the spectrum, whereas Asperger’s is a milder condition that doesn’t involve speech impairment (as classic autism does); PDD-NOS, by contrast, is a catch-all diagnosis for when a child has some symptoms of autism or Asperger’s but doesn’t meet all the specific criteria for either one.
While people with ASDs tend to have some symptoms in common -- like problems with social interaction and repetitive behaviors -- ASDs affect people in highly individual ways and can range in severity from mild to very serious within each disorder. Someone with mild autism may simply seem quirky and lead a fairly normal life. Meanwhile, some kids with more severe autism or other PDD-NOS may seem to be locked in their own worlds, unable to connect or relate to others. They may be more inclined to run along the length of a playroom than to join a group of kids playing together in the middle. Meanwhile, those who have high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome may struggle with negotiating the nuances of social interactions; they might invade other children’s personal space, take things other people say quite literally (making them unable to “get” jokes), or have trouble with the concept of pretend play.
Currently, it’s estimated that one in every 50 children is diagnosed with autism, and 1.5 million people in the U.S. are affected by it. The rate of autism has been increasing by 10 to 17 percent annually, prompting some people to say we’re in the midst of an autism epidemic, but that’s hardly the case. While some of the increase may be real, much of it may be due to better recognition of the disorders by professionals and the public, as well as to changes in the criteria that are used to diagnose ASDs.
Many experts believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors determine a person’s risk of developing an ASD. While these disorders occur among children of all races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups, they are four to five times more likely to occur among boys, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If one identical twin has an ASD, the other has at least a 60 percent chance of having one, too, according to the CDC.
While there’s no cure for ASDs, research continues to untangle the roots and complexities of these disorders -- and early intervention can greatly improve a child’s development. In fact, the sooner a child is diagnosed, the sooner treatments can be introduced, and the sooner a child can be helped, developmentally, socially, and behaviorally. This will improve the chances that a child with an ASD will reach his or her full potential.