Autism Spectrum Disorders – An Overview

Autism spectrum disorders - an overview

What is Autism?

  • A neurodevelopmental disorder – i.e. differences in the way the nervous system functions that results in developmental delays.
  • A spectrum disorder – from high functioning (low support) to low functioning (high support). There is wide variation in challenges and in strengths.

Facts and Figures:

These figures are from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (2014):

  • 1 in every 68 children is affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders.
  • It occurs in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
  • It is 4.5 times more common in boys (1 in 42) than in girls (1 in 189).
  • In 2000 the statistics were that it occurs in 1 in every 150 children, thus the incidences are increasing.

Autism Spectrum Disorders are characterised by:

The current criteria in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) are:

  • Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction.
  • Restrictive or repetitive behaviours, interests or activities.
  • Symptoms are present in the early developmental period.
  • Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of current functioning.

Deficits in social communication and social interaction:

  • Delayed language development (and some children remain non-verbal).
  • Inappropriate use of language e.g. using language in the correct context, staying on topic and adjusting speech to fit in with different people or situations.
  • A lack of communication reciprocity e.g. making eye-contact, smiling back at caregivers, initiation of interaction, turn-taking, engaging in back and forth conversation.
  • Limited use of gestures e.g. waving or pointing.
  • Limited understanding of non-verbal communication e.g. judging facial expressions, body language or tone of voice.
  • Difficulty with developing, maintaining and understanding relationships e.g. showing an interest in peers, initiating interaction, making and keeping friends, engaging in imaginary play, understanding humour etc.

Restricted and Repetitive behaviours / interests:

  • Repetitive motor movements or speech may be present e.g. lining up toys, arranging numbers in order, spinning wheels to watch them, echolalia in speech.
  • Restricted and fixated interests that are present with increased intensity e.g. knowing all the facts about a particular field of interest such as dinosaurs.
  • An inability to cope with changes and difficulty with transitioning between tasks and environments.
  • Rigid thinking patterns.
  • Rigid rituals e.g. with greetings/ hygiene rituals or things like taking the same route to school or eating off the same plate each night.
  • Hyper- or hypo- sensitivity to sensory input e.g. a decreased awareness of temperature and pain; aversion to certain sounds or textures; an increased need for certain input e.g. spinning/ rocking/ jumping; and a fascination with certain input e.g. movement of wheels or fans.

How is Autism diagnosed?

  • By paediatricians, paediatric neurologists, psychiatrists and psychologists.
  • They use the criteria given by the DSM – V (as discussed above).
  • They may use checklists and observations.
  • There is also a screening tool used by some clinicians – the ADOS (The Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule). This measures things like communication, social interaction and play.

Interventions for Autism:

  • Early intervention is key!! Therefore, early diagnosis is so important.
  • Being in the correct educational environment with adequate support for skill level.
  • Speech and Language Therapy: to address language and communication difficulties.
  • Occupational Therapy: to address self-regulation, sensory integration, motor planning and motor skill deficits.
  • Floor time DIR (Developmental Individual-difference Relationship-based model): to improve intentional communication, interaction and learning through following the child’s lead and meeting them at their level.
  • Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA): the study of behaviour and use of principles of learning and behaviour (e.g. using reinforcers) to decrease or increase certain behaviours.
  • Medication: often used for calming or for enhancing concentration.
  • Equine therapy: a horse-riding based therapy to provide vestibular and proprioceptive input and help the child to engage with another living creature.
  • Therapy dogs: the dogs act as social catalysts.


Written by Tamaryn Hunter – BSc (Occupational Therapy – Occupational Therapist)

error: Content is protected !!