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Autism Spectral Disorder: Getting the Facts

  • Category: News
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  • Written By: Genie Blake, RN

Printed in the August 6, 2020 issue of The Worcester County Times

Given the high prevalence of autism spectrum disorder in the United States, it is very likely that you know someone who is facing the challenges of this condition. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disability that can affect a child’s social skills, communication and behavior. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1 in 54 children is diagnosed with ASD by age 8. This number has increased significantly since 2000, when it was estimated that 1 in 150 children was diagnosed with the disorder. This marked increase can be attributed to better screening, more awareness among physicians, parents, and schools, and changes in how ASD is defined.

ASD describes the group of conditions that were previously known separately as autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder, and disintegrative disorder. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states that professionals no longer use these terms; the diagnosis of ASD is a broad one that covers all of these conditions. ASD is known as a “spectrum” disorder because there is such a wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms among those who are diagnosed with it. ASD occurs in all ethnic, racial, and economic groups, and affects boys about 4 times more often than girls.

The AAP recommends screening for ASD for all children at their 18-month and 24-month checkups. This screening is an important part of a child’s well-being, since the earlier an interventional program for ASD is begun, the better the outcomes will be for children who are diagnosed with it.

Signs of ASD may be noticed before a child’s first birthday, and are typically present by the age of 24 months. Most children with ASD will sit, crawl, and walk on time but there are other symptoms to look for in the first two years.

Signs of the social difficulties of ASD include poor eye contact, little response to other’s facial expressions, not pointing out objects to others, lack of empathy for others, and disinterest in interacting with others.

Children with ASD may have communication challenges during their early development. A parent may notice that their child repetitively repeats what others say (“parroting”), has difficulty with conversations, has a flat tone in their speech, demonstrates a very good memory for songs, numbers, or specific topics, does not respond to their name being called, does not speak single words by 16 months old, or loses language skills between the ages of 15 and 24 months.

Some of the behavioral differences in children with ASD is a heightened sensitivity to smells, sounds, and touch, repeatedly playing with one toy, rocking, swaying, spinning or hand flapping, and difficulty with transitions and changes in routines.

The exact cause of ASD is still unknown, but the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that genes and environmental influences may affect a child’s development in ways that lead to ASD. The NIH lists the risks for ASD as having a sibling with ASD, older parents, very low birth weight, and other genetic conditions such as Down syndrome or fragile X syndrome.

Parents who are concerned about their child’s development should work closely with their pediatrician to address any changes they have noticed. Because there is such a broad range of symptoms and severity there is no one specific treatment for ASD, but there are multiple therapies available including speech and behavior therapy, medication, dietary interventions and building on a child’s strengths.

For more information on ASD, check out the AAP’s website or the NIH’s at On August 11, 2020, Atlantic General Hospital will be hosting their 4th Annual Autism Awareness Event as a virtual (Zoom) conference. This event is free of charge to the community and is held in collaboration with Kennedy Krieger Institute. Discussions will include Autism and Nutrition Research, Behavioral and Medical Challenges in Children with Special Healthcare Needs during COVID-19, and Special Education Law and the COVID-19 Pandemic, followed by a question and answer session. Internet access is required. For more information, call 410-641-9268 or email me at