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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

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Autism Spectrum Disorders

There is considerable overlap among the different forms of autism. The wide variation in symptoms among children with autism, however, has led to the concept of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

ASDs affect one out of every 68 children in the U.S. They occur more often among boys than girls. While autism appears to be on the rise, it's unclear whether the growing number of diagnoses shows a real increase or comes from improved detection.

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Early diagnosis is important. That's because early treatment can help a child with autism make significant gains in language and social skills.

Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorders affect three different areas of a child's life:

  • Social interaction
  • Communication -- both verbal and nonverbal
  • Behaviors and interests

Each child with an ASD will have his or her own pattern of autism.

Sometimes, a child's development is delayed from birth. Some children seem to develop normally before they suddenly lose social or language skills. Others show normal development until they have enough language to demonstrate unusual thoughts and preoccupations.

In some children, a loss of language is the major impairment. In others, unusual behaviors (like spending hours lining up toys) seem to to be the dominant factors.

Parents are usually the first to notice something is wrong. But a diagnosis of autism is often delayed. Parents or a physician may downplay early signs of autism, suggesting the symptoms are "just a phase" or a sign of a minor delay in development. Children with a possible autism spectrum disorder, though, should be evaluated by a professional team with experience in diagnosing autism.

Until recently, the types of ASD have been determined by guidelines in the diagnostic manual (DSM - IV) of the American Psychiatric Association. According to the CDC, the three main types of ASD are:

The DSM -IV also included two rare but severe autistic-like conditions -- Rett syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder.

The new diagnostic manual has made some major changes in this list of disorders. It's unclear, though, how these changes will affect the way health professionals define exactly what is an autistic spectrum disorder.

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