Applied Psychology

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Mar 18, 2021 | By Saranne Durham
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), previously just called “autism” means that your brain works differently from other people. It is something that you are born with or first appears at a young age. It is termed a neurodevelopmental disorder because symptoms, relating to communication and behaviour, usually start occurring in the first two years of life.

An ASD diagnosis does not prevent someone from living a full and happy life with friends, work and hobbies. How much or little assistance a person with ASD may need, depends on where they fall on the Autistic Spectrum.

Common Features of ASD include:

  1. Little or inconsistent eye contact
  2. Being slow to respond to verbal attempts to gain attention (including being called by name)
  3. Inconsistency between what’s been said and facial expressions, gestures or movements
  4. Not understanding or noticing non-verbal or body language ques from others
  5. Finding it difficult to understand someone else’s perspective
  6. Being unable to predict, understand or interpret another person’s actions or reactions
  7. Finding it difficult to sustain conversations that require back/forth exchanges
  8. Repetitive behaviour or repeated use of phrases and words
  9. Overly focused and intense interest on a specific topic e.g.: facts and/or numbers
  10. Being over or under stimulated by sensory inputs like light, sound, textures and tastes

Where Does ASD come from?

There are a number of theories as to why ASD occurs. However, no one is entirely sure why ASD happens. Given that it can run in families, there are thoughts that there is a genetic predisposition or link. There are certain risk factors which are seen to increase the chance of ASD occurring. However, despite genes contributing to the likelihood of ASD, there is no specific genetic test for it. Some laboratories will test biomarkers which, if atypical, could possibly indicate the presence of ASD. Although this is not a certainty. Additionally, scientists suspect that it is likely that ASD could have environmental causes.

“The causes of ASD are speculated but not known for sure.”

Some Risk Factors associated with ASD

  • Immediate family members who have ASD
  • Genetic factors such as having: Fragile X Syndrome or Down Syndrome
  • Parents who are older
  • A very low birth weight
  • Extremely premature birth

While the origins of ASD are unclear, there is confirmation on where ASD does not originate from.

ASD is NOT a result of:

  • Bad parenting
  • Poor diet
  • Vaccines
  • Infectious illnesses
  • A low IQ or intellectual ability

How to Diagnose ASD

ASD is diagnosed through a comprehensive behavioural evaluation, which includes assessing the development history of a child. Ideally a multi-disciplinary team of experts (e.g.: developmental paediatrician, educational psychologist, neurologist, speech and occupational therapists) should do this. They need to also have detailed reports from parents/caregivers and teachers to augment and better contextualise information gathered.

An ASD Evaluation will assess:

  • Thinking skills
  • Cognitive Level
  • Language and Articulation Abilities
  • Age-appropriate skills associated with every day activities
  • Social interaction

“Confirming ASG requires multiple screening tools and a multi-disciplinary team of experts.”

As part of the evaluation for ASD a child will also have a physical, which includes hearing tests, to rule out physical reasons for behaviour and communication challenges. A combination of screening tools used by a a multi-disciplinary team of experts also forms part of the evaluation for ASD in determining the level of support and severity. This is because no single test can assess and conclude that someone has ASD or where they fall on the spectrum.

3 Examples of ASD Screening Tools:

  1. Ages and Stages Questionnaires (ASQ) which focuses on age specific developmental challenges
  2. Screening Tool for ASD in Toddlers and Young Children (STAT) which is an interactive tool that assesses communication, imagination and play using 12 activities.
  3. Gilliam Autism Rating Scale-2 (GARS-2) is used to assess 3-22 years of age who are suspected of having ASD due to severe behavioural problems

Detecting ASD in Adults

It is more difficult to assess an adult for ASD, mainly because it can be co-occurring with other mental health diagnoses, such as anxiety and/or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ASD testing is still being refined for adults, however it is still helpful for an adult with suspected ASD to undergo screening. An ASD confirmation can greatly assist an adult in better understanding themselves and their past difficulties. Additionally, it can help them to leverage their strengths and seek the correct support for challenges they experience.

Why Autism is a Spectrum

ASD is a spectrum because it presents in a range of ways. Those with ASD can have learning disabilities, be of average intelligence or in rare cases be gifted. They could require a lot of assistance with daily living or none at all.

Neuroplasticity (the ability of our brains to adjust to changes, make new connections, master skills and store information and memories) is greatest in early childhood. Thus, the sooner ASD is diagnosed the better for a child and their caregivers, as a learning and development programme can be employed to developmentally sensitive that focus on social skills in school-age and vocational issues in late adolescence.

There are three levels of ASD

Level 1

Requiring Support – this group requires support for social interaction and communication as they may seem less interested in and them as most people, and change can evoke challenges with 1 restricted, repetitive behaviour.

Level 2

Requiring Substantial Support – this group requires support with verbal and non-verbal social communication and, even with support in place, are likely to struggle with change in carious activities.

Level 3

Requiring Extensive or Very Substantial Support – this group has serious limitations when it comes to social communication. Speech is typically limited to only a few words, significantly impairing daily functioning. All areas of activity marked by behavioural rigidity making change exceptionally hard.

How ASD Affects Daily Life

As ASD is a spectrum, the range and impact of what someone with ASD experiences or feels varies in severity.

People with ASD may:

  • Do or think the same thing repeatedly
  • Take longer to process information, including abstract language.
  • Become anxious or upset when faced with the unexpected, unfamiliar or change
  • Be overwhelmed or become stressed out by loud noises and bright lights
  • Find it difficult to interact and communicate with others
  • Not easily understand how others think or feel

This means that they could experience challenges when it comes to school and learning, employment, independent living and maintaining a social network. Sadly, for many autistic people, bullying and vitimisation is a reality.

Living with ASD can be a challenge, however for many they also excel in specific areas beyond what others do.

3 Areas that People with ASD Often Excel in

  1. Learning and retaining detailed information
  2. Visual and auditory learning
  3. Science, maths, music, or art

10 Famous & Successful People with ASD

  1. Sir Isaac Newton – Mathematician, Astronomer, & Physicist
  2. Barbara McClintock – Scientist and Cytogeneticist
  3. Bill Gates – Co-founder of the Microsoft Corporation
  4. Lewis Carroll – Author of “Alice in Wonderland”
  5. Emily Dickinson – Poet
  6. Michelangelo – Sculptor, Painter, Architect, Poet
  7. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Classical Composer
  8. Susan Boyle – Singer
  9. Sir Anthony Hopkins – Actor
  10. Satoshi Tajiri – Creator of Nintendo’s Pokémon

While there is no way to prevent ASD, interventions to assist with making behaviour and communication less of a challenge can be helpful at any age. Ideally, this intervention should happen as young as possible, however teenager and adult interventions have been quite effective in assisting many to be increasingly more independent over time.

If developmental psychology interests you then enquire today about how to embark on this fulfilling career. SACAP offers internationally recognised courses with full-time, part-time and online learning options.

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