What is Autism Spectrum Disorder and What Should Parents and Educators Know?

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The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as “a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 59 children were diagnosed with ASD in 2018. Rates of ASD are increasing, and more parents today are faced with the difficulties of raising a child with autism.

Understanding autism spectrum disorder and how parents and educators can develop ASD treatment strategies.

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What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Though ASD must be diagnosed by qualified health care professionals, parents should look out for certain behaviors signaling that a child may have ASD.

Characteristics of Children with ASD

One of the key traits of children with ASD is difficulty communicating and interacting with others. Signs of this trait include making little or inconsistent eye contact, having difficulty sharing a conversation, talking for a while without noticing that others are disinterested or not giving them a chance to respond, or having difficulty predicting or understanding other people’s behaviors.

Another prime characteristic is narrow interest. Signs of this include obsessing over specific topics, having an intense fascination with moving objects or parts of objects, getting upset over slight changes in routine, and being more or less sensitive than others to sensory input from light, noise, clothing, or temperature.

A third indicator is repetitive behaviors. These include repeating words or phrases, rocking, spinning, and hand flapping.

Living with ASD

Studies show ASD is 4.5 times more common among boys than among girls. They also reveal that 44% of children with ASD have average to above-average intellectual ability. Children with ASD also have higher medical expenditures than those without ASD by roughly $4,110 to $6,200 per year. Additionally, children with ASD have intensive behavioral interventions that can cost up to $40,000 to $60,000 per child per year.

Causes, Risk Factors, & Diagnosis of ASD

Though the cause of ASD is unknown, certain factors may increase a child’s risk of developing ASD. Some of these potential risk factors include having a sibling with ASD, having older parents, being born with a low birth rate, and having Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, or Rett syndrome.

There are a few signs that can be determined through health care visits. A doctor may recommend developmental tests for a child if they exhibit certain developmentally related behaviors. These behaviors can include not responding with a smile or happy expression by 6 months, not making baby sounds by 12 months, not pronouncing single words by 16 months, and not playing pretend by 18 months. Doctors may also recommend the test if the child shows regression in any language or social skills at any age.

How ASD is Diagnosed in Children

There are two stages to the ASD diagnostic process. The first stage involves general development screening during routine checkups. During this stage, children should be screened for developmental delays at 9-, 18- 24-, and 30-month pediatrician visits, although children at higher risk for ASD may need additional screenings. Children showing potential developmental delays will be referred to stage two, additional evaluation for diagnosis. In this stage, a child will be diagnosed by a team of health professionals, such a s a developmental pediatrician or a neuropsychologist. They will work together to evaluate a child’s ASD symptoms, adaptive functioning, cognitive level, or language ability.

Diagnosing ASD in Older Children and Adolescents

Parents and teachers may notice children having difficulties at school with communication and social interaction. In this case, the school’s special education team may evaluate the student for educational purpose and then recommend a visit to the student’s primary health care doctor or professional specializing in ASD for additional testing and diagnosis.

Treatment and Resources

Though there’s no cure for ASD, certain treatments and interventions can help individuals to manage symptoms and live independent lives.

Signs to Look Out For

In some cases, medication may be prescribed to treat symptoms associated with ASD. These symptoms can include irritability, aggression, hyperactivity, anxiety, and depression.

Applied behavior analysis, psychological interventions, and skill-building interventions may also help individuals with ASD. Their work can help individuals with ASD develop the life skills necessary to live independently, reduce challenging behaviors, increase or develop strengths, and develop social communication and language skills.

Resources for Living with ASD

There are several organizations that can help provide individuals with ASD and their families with valuable resources and information, from research findings and health advocacy to developmental milestone checklists and legislative data. Some of the key organizations include the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, American Academy of Pediatrics, HealthyChildren.org, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Speech-Language Association, and Autism Society of America.


Parents and educators of children living with ASD have access to many tools and resources to help children to manage their symptoms and succeed in life. With the support of parents and educators, children living with ASD will be empowered to pursue their goals and live happy, fulfilled lives.

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