In this two-part article, we’ve been discussing the complexities, facts, and myths about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and related topics. As more attention is paid to the topics of autism, neurodivergence, and similar conditions, we have a great opportunity to clarify the confusion and misconceptions that still remain. In the first part, we laid the groundwork by defining ASD, its history, and its symptoms. Now we’ll talk about how ASD is treated and wrap up with a discussion of words and terminology related to ASD.
How is ASD diagnosed?
According to an article published by the Mayo Clinic, ASD is usually suspected when common symptoms or signs are spotted by parents very early in a child’s life, usually before age 3 and sometimes much earlier. There is no single screening or test to diagnose ASD, but once the condition is suspected, a doctor will monitor the child for developmental delays and divergences (many of which are listed in the first part of this article). Not all such delays or developmental issues can be attributed to ASD, of course, but if clear signs and symptoms of ASD are found, the child will typically be referred to a specialist for further evaluation and diagnosis. Because ASD varies so widely in its symptomology and severity, the diagnosis process will likely consist of behavioral observation over time. Diagnoses may also be informed by tests to evaluate hearing, speech, communication skills, personal interactions, and cognitive ability. A specialist will consult the criteria set forth in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the taxonomic and diagnostic instrument utilized and published by the American Psychiatric Association, also known as the DSM) and perhaps seek the advice of other specialists. There are genetic markers that may indicate ASD, but as mentioned previously, there are no pathological tests for ASD.
How is ASD treated?
There is no cure for ASD, nor any single approach to treatment. According to the Mayo Clinic, the goal of ASD treatment is to lessen the impact of unhelpful symptoms and maximize the person’s ability to function, learn, and develop. The Mayo Clinic advises that the sheer number of options available may be overwhelming, and a person’s treatment needs will likely change over time. Some of the ASD treatment options include (1) behavior and communication therapy; (2) educational therapy; (3) therapy programs for speech, communication, occupational competence; and (4) medication to mitigate and minimize disruptive and unhelpful symptoms and behaviors.
What is “the spectrum”?
When properly employed, the term “the spectrum” is the official diagnosis and an umbrella term used to refer to disorders that were previously diagnosed separately. These include Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive development disorder. Referring to ASD as “autism” and “on the spectrum” is generally accurate and appropriate, though this may be a sensitive personal matter. If you know someone with ASD, it may be a good idea to check with them about their preferred terminology.
What is “neurodivergence”?
Terms such as neurodivergence, neurodiverse, and neurotypical (and non-typical) developed and entered common usage as a way to discuss autism and its characteristics with greater sympathy and sensitivity. For example, the term “neurotypical” helps to clarify that someone who does not live with ASD is not considered “normal” or “better.” Likewise, someone who is “neurodiverse” is not “abnormal.” In other words, “typical” and “divergent” are not intrinsically positive or negative—they simply express what is typical and non-typical. Recently, other conditions have been informally collected under the classifications of “neurodivergent” and “neurodiverse” because they exhibit themselves in the form of non-typical behaviors and characteristics. These may include the following:
-Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
-Depression and generalized anxiety
What is the difference between ASD and Asperger syndrome?
According to the Autism Society of America, Asperger’s syndrome was first described in the 1940s by Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger, who observed autism-like behaviors in boys who did not experience intellectual delays, cognitive problems, or language development delays. While Asperger syndrome is listed separately from ASD in the DSM, many professionals and specialists nevertheless consider it a milder form of ASD.
What causes ASD and related conditions?
According to multiple sources, the exact causes of ASD are not well understood. Environmental factors may also play a role in gene function and development, but specific environmental causes have yet to be definitively identified. Any suggestion or theories that parenting practices cause ASD have been disproved, as have theories that vaccinations cause ASD. Current research on ASD indicates that both genetics and environment likely play a role in ASD. Science has identified a number of genes associated with ASD. Study data suggest that ASD could arise from very early disruptions in brain development and growth, which could be caused by the genes that govern brain development. Autism spectrum disorder is known to occur more often in children who are born prematurely.
The CDC states: “Scientists believe there are multiple causes of ASD that act together to change the most common ways people develop. We still have much to learn about these causes and how they impact people with ASD.”
Changing attitudes toward ASD, the spectrum, and neurodivergence
It’s significant to note that attitudes toward autism have changed a lot in the past 20 or 30 years. With the increasingly widespread use of the terms neurodivergent and neurodiversity, there is an emerging attitude that those with ASD and other forms of neurodivergence should simply be accepted and accommodated, rather than be required to behave and communicate the way “everyone else” does.