Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental disabilities. Typically appearing during a child’s first three years of life, ASD impacts the development and functioning of the brain, and is most often characterized by behavioral, social, and communicative challenges.
While the signs and symptoms of ASD can be very diverse, individuals with ASD do tend to share a number of common qualities and characteristics. Children and adults with ASD often have difficulty communicating, both verbally and non-verbally, and can find it challenging to relate to others and to the outside world. Social interactions and play can therefore be problematic. In addition, people with ASD can have very different ways of reacting to things, learning, solving problems, or paying attention than those without ASD.
Because it is a spectrum disorder, however, ASD affects each individual differently. Factors such as the number and specific kinds of symptoms, level of severity, and age of onset can vary greatly from person to person. In fact, due to the recent publication of a new diagnostic manual, several conditions which previously received separate diagnoses, such as Asperger syndrome or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), are now simply called ASD. It is therefore important to remember that, although the label may be a broad one, each person with ASD will have his or her own unique needs, strengths, and challenges.
Researchers and scientists are still searching for the cause or causes of ASD, but believe that the disorder is linked to neurological or biological differences in the brain. The fact that ASD can often run in families suggests that genetics may play a major role in the disorder, though as of yet no single gene has been directly associated with ASD. Other risk factors include parents’ age, chromosomal or genetic conditions such as fragile X syndrome, and certain types of prescription drugs taken during pregnancy. Contrary to previous beliefs, ASD is neither a mental illness nor a result of poor parenting skills, and children with ASD are not simply kids who misbehave.
While ASD has long been one of the most common developmental disabilities, recent years have seen an even more significant rise in ASD diagnoses. Factors such as better diagnostic efforts as well as a broader definition of ASD have certainly played a role in this growth, but experts believe that a true increase in the number of individuals with ASD has indeed taken place. According to the Center for Disease Control, an estimated one in 68 children in the United States currently has ASD, compared with an estimated one in 150 children in 2002, making a total of more than 2 million individuals in the United States alone. Boys are between four and five times more likely to be affected by ASD than girls. Furthermore, ASD has been reported across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.
In purely medical terms, there is presently no cure for ASD, which is a lifelong condition. However, advances in the understanding of both the brain and the disorder, as well as greatly improved resource and support networks, mean than many people with ASD now go on to lead full and meaningful lives.