Fact Sheet: Autistic Spectrum Disorders

Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are a group of developmental and neurobiological disorders currently characterized by atypical development in: (1) communication and language, (2) social skills and interaction and (3) behavior and interests. A proposed revision in the upcoming DSM-V shifts toward an emphasis on social communication deficits and unusual behaviors. Genetic markers for ASD have been found and environmental issues that could cause ASD are also being explored. Poor parenting and immunizations do not cause ASD.

Prevalence and Course

One in 88 children have an ASD, and boys are five times as likely to be diagnosed as girls. Many factors could explain an increase in the prevalence of ASD over the past decade, including earlier identification and diagnosis. Children with ASD display a wide range of behaviors that affect social communication and behavior. The course of ASD varies significantly, and is related to factors such as language skills, IQ and participation in early intervention services. Some children diagnosed at a young age display challenges in all aspects of their development. Children with milder forms of autism, sometimes referred to as high functioning autism (HFA) or Asperger’s disorder (AD), may have less problematic behaviors early in life. They may have subtle symptoms that appear “quirky” at first, but as they get older, the social communication impairments and restricted interests/behavioral rigidity can begin to interfere with recognizing social cues, and developing and maintaining relationships. For these children, diagnosis and intervention may be delayed, resulting in anxiety and stress, social withdrawal and disruptive behaviors. Depression and poor self-confidence may be present as well.

Health and Psychosocial Consequences

Researchers have described a host of medical and sensory issues that can accompany ASD, resulting in aggravation of symptoms. Medical costs are on average six times greater for individuals with ASD. Children with ASD and their families are at greater risk for mental health concerns due to the stress of providing extra care.

Evidence-based Assessment

Early intervention improves outcomes for children with ASD. Pediatricians should do regular developmental screenings and rule out other childhood disorders that could explain symptoms so that timely assessment can occur. Assessments from multidisciplinary perspectives (e.g., developmental pediatricians, psychologists, speech-language pathologists, occupational and physical therapists) are recommended.

Culture, Diversity, Demographic and Developmental Factors

ASD occurs across cultural, ethnic and racial groups. Prevalence rates are higher in the U.S. than in most other countries and ASD is slightly more common in Whites; however, these differences may be related to variability in access to and use of professional services.  

Evidence-based Interventions

Intervention is grounded in the understanding that ASD is neurobiological and will persist for life. Use of intensive and consistent therapies such as ABA (applied behavior analysis), speech-language therapy, social skills training and psychological counseling has supported the development of children with ASD and minimized their symptoms. Infant/toddler programs offer these services for children through the age of three, and the public schools provide special education to children ages 3-21. Medication may also be used help with issues such as behavior, depression and attention. Supporting caregivers is an extremely important aspect of intervention.

Key References

Campbell, J.M., Segall, M.J, & Dommestrup, A.K. (2009). Autism Spectrum Disorders and developmental disabilities. In M.C. Roberts & R.G. Steele (Eds.), Handbook of pediatric psychology (4th ed., pp. 508-525). New York: The Guilford Press. 

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012, July 1). Facts about ASDs. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html.
  
Francis, K. (2005). Autism interventions: a critical update. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 47, 493-499.