Autism Spectrum Disorder: What to Know

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that manifests itself during the first three years of life. The key characteristics of ASD are a lack of verbal and non-verbal communication, restricted behaviors, and a lack of social interaction.

Key takeaways:


Repetitive behaviors

A child with ASD will indulge in repetitive behaviors, for example, banging on the table and hand clapping. Repetitive behaviors can also be verbal, for example, asking the same thing over and over again or repeating a phrase. Additionally, the repetitions can use a particular object(s) in a set way, for example, lining up, flipping, or stroking toys. Sometimes the repetitive behaviors may cause self-injury or be harmful.

Emotional symptoms

Individuals with ASD have difficulty with emotional control and may behave inappropriately in social settings. As a result, they may have problems understanding others or misunderstanding how others feel. For example, they often have difficulty determining whether a person is happy or in pain. Additionally, studies have shown that people with ASD have difficulty interpreting facial expressions. In other words, they have trouble extracting and/or recognizing the valuable information that body language provides in social contexts.

Restrictive behaviors

ASD is also characterized by restricted behaviors, interests, or activities. This means a person may become overly attached to a particular object, shape, or color.


A person with ASD will likely avoid eye contact. Children with ASD are easily overwhelmed by their environment. What seems to be something simple or ordinary, like background noise or a minor flash of light, can become a major external stimulant for them.


It is very common for children with ASD to also suffer from atypical language development. Nowadays, language issues are treated as a separate condition.

Living with a loved one with ASD

If you have a loved one with ASD, ask about the environmental stimuli that overwhelm them. Understanding triggers may help you avoid particular environments or situations when a person with ASD would react negatively. If you have a child with ASD, observing them in situations may help you understand how or why they feel overwhelmed. In some cases, the individual’s environment can even cause physical pain. For example, it is common for individuals with ASD to be averse to touch. However, it does not mean that they are upset with you. It may be just that the touch sensation gives them an unpleasant feeling.

In some ASD cases, individuals exhibit extreme rigidness. What can appear as a slight change can become a triggering experience. People with ASD are reluctant to make any changes to their routines. For example, these habits include daily activities, speech patterns, familiar smells, moving into a new environment, and eating the same food(s). These are highly-individualized behaviors. For example, there could be specific greeting rituals, particular routes to school/work, or the need to eat particular foods at a particular time. Therefore, it’s important to understand and learn a person’s daily routines.

How common is ASD, and what causes it?

Large-scale population surveys indicated that ASD prevalence is between 1% and 2%. What is most concerning, though, is that ASD prevalence seems to have increased over the past 20 years. This might be, at least in part, explained by the development of diagnostic criteria, which allow for more precise and earlier diagnostics. However, other contributing factors should not be ignored or rejected.

ASD is more prevalent in boys than girls, though the data differs between studies. Nevertheless, boys tend to be diagnosed between two to three times more often. This, however, has been recently challenged. Arguments propose that ASD symptomatology is slightly different in girls; therefore, the diagnoses may remain overlooked. Alternatively, some scientists suggest there might be some female-specific resilience to ASD.

The exact cause of ASD is not clear, but it has been established as an inheritable condition. Studies report that the rate of inheritance varies between 74% and 93%. The risk of having a child with ASD also increases if the first or first and second children have been diagnosed. Scientists have yet to isolate the exact genes responsible for ASD.

Environmental factors, especially those that may affect a fetus, have been proposed to play a role. For example, factors such as infections could increase the chances of being born with ASD. Conceiving later in life is also associated with ASD — over 40 for women and over 50 for men.

What help is available for ASD?

Unfortunately, ASD is not a treatable condition. Of course, depending on symptom severity and the success of behavior management, adults with ASD can live a full and happy life.

The primary treatment for ASD is therapy. Treatment is highly personalized because each symptomatology has its unique characteristics. Therapy addresses problematic behaviors, such as agitation, irritability, and repetitive behaviors, especially self-injurious tendencies. Educational and behavioral treatments are available for ASD. If you have doubts or questions regarding treatment, consult your clinical practitioner for an individualized plan for you or your child.

It is common to prescribe medication for children and adults with ASD. Medications include antipsychotics, antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and atypical antipsychotics. Your physician will assess the circumstances and prescribe the most appropriate medication.

If you have a child with ASD, early parent-mediated interventions (PMI) are helpful. They are non-intrusive and reduce the demands on children because they are their home environment. To be most effective, a qualified clinician should coach a parent on how to bring “the treatment home”. This type of treatment is highly individualized and meant to complement other approaches as the parents know their child best. The therapeutic process focuses on learning useful communication skills and coping, in addition to behavioral approaches. A dedicated clinician can help you create customized PMI approaches.

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