Autism spectrum disorder

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at January 13, 2016
StartDiseasesAutism spectrum disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a term used to describe a wide range of symptoms related to developmental delays. While the number of cases of autism spectrum disorder is rising, there is also a better understanding of symptoms and treatments that can help individuals that are in the spectrum and their families.


Definition & Facts

ASD is not one specific disorder, but rather a few different disorders with similar symptoms. Individuals that are in the autism spectrum experience difficulties with social skills, behavior, empathy, and communication. There are several different disorders that used to be considered separate conditions, but they are now considered part of the spectrum, including Asperger syndrome, autistic disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder.

While each disorder in the spectrum has common core symptoms, each individual person is different, and exhibit different levels and combinations of these symptoms. Most people are diagnosed as children, and symptoms normally present themselves during early childhood, between the ages of 2 and 4. However, people can also be diagnosed later in life, even during adulthood, if they were never diagnosed as children.

Symptoms & Complaints

Signs and symptoms of ASD vary from person to person. Some individuals may experience all of them with severity, while someone else may experience mild symptoms. With social skills, some of the signs to look out for include:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Lack of interest in what others are doing or thinking
  • Preferring to be alone
  • Seeming detached from other people's feelings
  • Lacking a desire to be involved in social situations
  • Failure or difficulties in forming friendship
  • Trouble understanding others' emotions and reactions
  • Aversion to being touched

With speech and language skills, some of the symptoms are

  • Delays in speech development or no speech at all
  • Speaking in abnormal or strange tones, rhythms, or pitches
  • Repetition of certain words or phrases without actual meaning behind them
  • Difficulties starting or maintaining conversations
  • Trouble with communicating desires or needs
  • Showing a lack of understanding questions
  • Difficulty understanding humor, irony or sarcasm.

Behavioral signs include displays of abnormal moving, such as repetitive body movements, flapping of the arms or hands, rocking, spinning, or just constant movement. Those with ASD may also be fascinated with things that most people are not, such as rubber bands or light switches; may become intensely interested in certain topics, usually involving numbers, such as sports statistics; may have a need for strict routine, order and schedules and may get upset by changes.

A small percentage of people with ASD exhibit special “savant” skills, where they may have exceptional skills in certain areas, such as musical talent or the ability to perform complicated mathematical equations in their heads.


The cause of ASD is a hotly debated topic, although the general consensus is that ASD can be caused by different biological, genetic and environmental factors. Most professionals do agree that genetics is the most likely reason for a person developing a disorder. Other risk factors include: having a sibling that has ASD, certain medications taken by the mother during pregnancy, or having older parents. There is also a concern that some vaccines can cause autism, but this has been unproven.

Diagnosis & Tests

Diagnosis for ASD can be somewhat difficult. There are no medical tests, such as a blood test, that can diagnose disorders on the autism spectrum. Also, every person displays symptoms in different ways, and some can be very mild. The most efficient way of diagnosing is through tracking; parents are urged to take note of all developmental milestones of children and alert their doctor of any concerns.

During checkups, doctors will do screenings to asses whether or not a child is developing normally. If there is a suspected case, getting an official diagnosis could take some time; the individual may need to be evaluated by an ASD specialist or a team of specialists, including psychologists, speech pathologists, neurologists, audiologists, physical therapists, and special education teachers.

Sometimes, ASD can be detected as early as 18 months, but typically, signs are not obvious until age two. In most cases, children are not officially diagnosed until age four, when speech delays and behavioral abnormalities will be much more obvious.

Treatment & Therapy

Unfortunately, there is no cure for ASD. In some cases, medication may be used to help some individuals function better in daily life. For instance, some medications may help those who struggle with depression, seizures, difficulties concentrating, or hyperactivity. However, early intervention treatment services can help improve the lives of individuals living with ASD. The earlier in life these services are applied, the better, which is why it is important to work closely with medical professionals to help identify signs and symptoms when they began to emerge.

Treatment for ASD could include the following types of treatment: speech therapy, auditory therapy, vitamin therapy, facilitated communication, music therapy, physical therapy, sensory integration, and occupational therapy. Applied behavioral analysis is also used to help individuals with ASD learn the differences between positive ad negative behaviors, and what is acceptable.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

There is no way to prevent any of these disorders. If an individual has the genetic abnormalities that will result in the development of ASD, then it is unavoidable. Of course, pregnant mothers can decrease risks by taking care of themselves while pregnant, and avoiding medications that are believed to cause ASD. There is some belief that diet can play a role in the development of ASD, but, like the vaccine claims, this needs further research.

It has been shown, however, that dietary restrictions and vitamins supplementation has improved some symptoms of ASD. A combination of a healthy diet and regular therapies, tailored to each individual with ASD, can help improve the quality of life. With early intervention and proper treatment, people with ASD can go on to live relatively normal lives: being involved in sports, doing well in school, handling relationships, and working into adulthood.